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Miners step up safeguards in mineral-rich Africa amid Ebola crisis

* Miners in W. Africa step up safeguards

* Infrared sensors, sonic bat repellants may be deployed

* Abundance of gold, iron ore, other minerals too tempting to miss

By James Regan

SYDNEY, Sept 5 (Reuters) - Mining companies are beefing up protection against the spreading Ebola virus in West Africa while maintaining investment in new projects in a region with vast untapped mineral wealth.

Attempts to keep the deadly virus out of work sites range from turning away anyone who has come from countries where Ebola is present to installing infrared heat monitors to measure body temperatures of employees as they pass through mine gates.


Similar devices have been deployed in airports to identify carriers during outbreaks of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), bird flu and swine flu.

In iron ore-rich Guinea, where the first deaths from Ebola were confirmed in March - the outbreak has since spread to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal - the government anticipates $50 billion of mining investments over the next decade, Minister for Mines Kerfalla Yansane said this week..

David Heymann, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is calling on companies to consider installing sonar bat repellant technology at mine sites.

Some medical experts believe that bats and other animals are the natural hosts of the Ebola virus, which has led Guinea to ban consumption of bat soup, grilled bat and other such items.


Eating "bush" meats, such as rats and other rodents, by employees should also be discouraged, according to Heymann.

"Instead of packing up and leaving, mining companies should work with the affected country to try and stop the outbreak," Heymann said in a telephone interview from an "Africa Down Under" mining investment conference in Perth, Australia.

"The most effective approach is to conduct a risk assessment before going into a country and determine what the factors might be and make sure that they can be mitigated," Heymann said.

More than 200 Australian mining companies with more than 700 projects operate in Africa.

Tawana Resources in August suspended all non-essential field work at its mine in Liberia after a state of emergency was declared, but there has been little to suggest mining companies are taking investments elsewhere.

Nearly a third of global mineral reserves are in Africa and the continent as a whole offers the highest prospects for unearthing new mineral resources, according to geologists.


Papillon Resources Ltd expects to start construction of the Fekola gold mine in Mali in the next quarter - the same time as it beds down a $650 million merger with B2Gold Corp (AMEX: BTG - news) of Canada.

"Fekola is a $350 million mining investment and we are ready to go," Papillon Managing Director Mark Connelly said.

West Africa remains a "gold industry hot spot", says Ann Ledwidge, an exploration manager for Orbis Gold Ltd, which is constructing three gold mines in Burkina Faso.

"This is the sort of appeal attracting a significant representation of international companies," she said.

In Burkina Faso, Gryphon Minerals Ltd is "on the cusp" of obtaining finance from Australia's Macquarie Bank to help fund construction of a $97 million gold mine, Gryphon Managing Director Steve Zaninovich said.

To reduce the risk of the transmission of Ebola, Rio Tinto (Xetra: 855018 - news) , which is spending $3 billion with Chinese partner Chinalco < 3668.HK> on the Simandou iron ore project in Guinea, asks staff who have visited highest-risk areas to stay at home for up to 21 days before returning to work, a company spokesman said.

Perseus Mining, which has mines in Ghana and Ivory Coast (BSE: COASTCORP.BO - news) , has issued health warnings and barred anyone coming from Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia from its sites.

It has also bought infrared heat monitors to take the temperatures of workers to identify anyone running a fever, which could signal infection by the Ebola virus.

"We will do all that we can, but at the end of the day we are a mining company, not medicos," Perseus Managing Director Jeff Quartermaine said. (Editing by Robert Birsel)