March 17, 2020 / 1:17 PM / 13 days ago

Chile lithium miners take coronavirus precautions, say impact on output minimal so far

SANTIAGO, March 17 (Reuters) - Top lithium miners in Chile, the world´s No.2 producer of the ultralight battery metal, ramped up sanitary precautions at their Atacama salt flat mining operations to protect workers from the coronavirus outbreak, but said impact on output was minimal thus far.

Cases of coronavirus in Chile had jumped to 181 on Tuesday, prompting authorities to shut down the country´s borders, close schools and prohibit gatherings of large groups. The South American nation is also the world´s top copper producer.

SQM, in a letter to Chilean financial regulators late on Monday, said the border closures, decreases in commercial activity and disruptions in supply chains had led to “a reduction of approximately 2,000 metric tonnes of lithium sales volumes in China.”

Demand for lithium, a vital ingredient in the batteries that power electric vehicles, has plunged in the past two months in China and elsewhere as the coronavirus outbreak has all but halted global industry.

SQM said it Chile operations had yet to see “any material impacts” related to the outbreak of the virus.

“We have taken measures to mitigate the impacts of this health emergency on our employees and limit the impact it could have on our operations. As of today, we do not expect this impact to be significant,” the company told regulators.

Competitor Albemarle, the globe´s top producer of lithium, told Reuters in an emailed statement that it too had moved to protect employees against the virus. The company told non-essential personnel to work from home beginning Tuesday, and was limiting the number of non-essential contractors at its operations.

Albemarle said its Chile output had not been hit by the virus.

“We have had no effect on production or significant impact on shipments from Chile,” the company said in the statement.

A top Albemarle executive told a financial conference last week the company was nonetheless experiencing a “weak” first quarter in China, where most of the company’s processing facilities and customers are located.

Copper miners in Chile are also implementing measures to contain the impacts of an eventual spread of coronavirus, officials said last week. (Reporting by Dave Sherwood; Editing by David Gregorio)

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