Eastplats made progress on key corporate and operational initiatives in 2023, continuing to operate and optimize the tailings storage facility (“TSF”) retreatment project at the Crocodile River Mine (“CRM”), raising capital to restart the Zandfontein underground mine (one of the three mines at CRM), initiating the restart of the Zandfontein underground project and successfully completing its special committee investigation into whistleblower allegations initiated during the year. These milestones came to pass amidst evolving financial and commodity markets.
On-Going Chrome Market Support
The Company continued to operate and optimize the TSF retreatment project at the CRM, producing both chrome concentrates and platinum group metals (“PGM”) ounces during the year. This retreatment project is the only large-scale magnetic separation application in South Africa, returning an annual average of 38.6% chrome concentrate grades since beginning operation in 2019. Though PGM ounces are expected to account for 65% of
Eastplats revenue by 2025-2026, chrome production made up most of the production mix in 2023.
PGM production is expected to account for roughly 80% of 2024 revenue as the soft restart of the underground mining will target high grade PGM ounces and metallurgical grade chrome byproducts within the Zandfontein section.
The increase in revenue derived from chromes sales during the year was primarily due to higher tonnages sold to third parties at market prices. Low chrome supply at ports (in China) as well as fluctuations in Chinese yuan exchanges rates against the US dollar is also believed to have supported robust chrome pricing in 2023.
Eastplats’ TSF retreatment project is expected to result in record annual revenues for 2023 of US$100 million and will continue operating into late 2024.
Volatility in PGM Market
The volatility in the PGM market has offset the buoyed performance from chrome concentrate volumes and prices. By December 2023, PGM prices, on average, fell approximately 40% year-over-year, with PGM price volatility impacting operations of PGM producers, decreasing margins, resulting in operational restructuring (and job cuts) and widening of the global supply deficit for the basket of precious and industrial metals.
However, despite the fall in PGM prices, it is important to remember that “the PGM basket price has not traded materially below the 70th percentile of the cost curve on an annual basis.”
Eastplats has not been impacted from these larger PGM price effects in 2023 for a number of reasons. First, a large part of operational efforts has focused on the Company’s retreatment project, the majority of which produces chrome concentrate. Second, Eastplats’ soft restart of the Zandfontein underground section at the CRM, that focuses on PGM mining and eventually PGM production, will be executed in phases. The initial “soft restart” phase, which began in Q4 2023, involves blasting and stockpiling of ore to begin processing in Q1 2024. At a normalized run rate, this soft restart phase is expected to produce 40,000 tons of PGM ore a month by the end of 2024. The next phase will see operations ramp up to 70,000 tons of PGM ore a month at the end of 2025, operating at a steady state rate in between 70,000 and 80,000 tons monthly in 2026.
Last, over the last couple of years, the Company has been implementing operational efficiency initiatives investing in support, development and infrastructure design to increase operational flexibility, reduce logistics and material handling costs.
The Company announced the completion of a special committee (the “Committee”) investigation. The Committee reviewed and analyzed unproven whistleblower allegations, including allegations of undisclosed related party transactions pertaining to the sale of chrome concentrate at discounted prices. With assistance from independent counsel engaged and a third-party e-discovery specialist to assist with the investigation, the
Committee found allegations advanced by the whistleblowers to be unsubstantiated, and the Committee did not find evidence to establish that the Company entered into any related party transaction pertaining to the sale of chrome concentrate and further concluded that the prices of the contracts in respect of the sale of chrome concentrate described in the allegations were within a reasonable range of market price, particularly in the challenging circumstances Eastplats faced in the latter half of 2022 and taking into account delivery terms and the grade of chrome concentrate.
The successful completion of these corporate activities has established a supportive base from which Eastplats plans to execute its 2024 growth plans.
The Company’s plans for 2024 and beyond are focused on its high-quality chrome and PGM portfolio. Over the next 12 months, Eastplats plans to:
- Ramp-up the Zandfontein underground operations – process up to 235,000 tons of underground run-of-mine (“ROM”) production per month.
- Complete the optimization of the chrome recovery plant for the retreatment project by focusing on improving the quality and quantity of chrome concentrate to improve the production yield.
- Confirm capital plans to support the full re-opening of Zandfontein underground operations at the CRM from external or internal sources.
- Complete the second phase of TSF capital works program and confirm the TSF dam space for new ROM tailings.
- Optimize Main Plant Circuit B for underground ROM operations.
- Renovate Circuit D to high energy flotation cells for better ROM processing recovery rate to 82% or higher.
- Advance the Mareesburg and Spitzkop project environmental work to complete the Environmental Impact Assessment and other environmental studies and amendments.
- Resolve the outstanding receivables from Union Goal Offshore Solution Limited.
- Continue prospecting and economic assessment work related to the Zandfontein, Crocette, and Kareespruit sections of the CRM and Kennedy’s Vale and Spitzkop mines at the eastern limb of the Bushveld Complex.