Fire alarm on a facility wall.

Aurubis has managed to continue production despite its troubles, but Rönnskär is facing a several-week-long shutdown following a major fire. | Nuroon Jampaklai/Shutterstock

Three worker deaths and a theft ring investigation upset operations at an Aurubis facility in Hamburg, Germany, and a serious fire shut down production at Boliden’s Rönnskär’s copper smelter in Skelleftehamn, Sweden.

Precious metal thefts

Copper producer Aurubis fired several employees and banned some third-party contractors from its Hamburg, Germany plant during an investigation into a suspected theft ring targeting precious metal-bearing intermediate products. 

Initial findings indicate that Aurubis was the target of past criminal activities, and the Hamburg police and Public Prosecutor’s Office are investigating select current and former Aurubis employees as well as third-party employees working at the site, according to a press release. 

“No accusations have been directed against Aurubis,” the press release noted. “The company has given the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the police its full support for several years, and welcomes the extensive investigations aimed at identifying those behind these crimes.”

Some of the suspects have been arrested and are now in custody, the press release added. The Public Prosecutor’s Office obtained arrest warrants amounting to over 20 million euros (about $22 million), but the total amount of the damages is part of the investigation. 

“According to current findings, Aurubis can rule out any harm to suppliers or customers,” the press release added. The company is also currently building a secondary smelter in Georgia, with a planned throughput capacity of 180,000 tons per year. 

Heiko Arnold, chief operating officer of custom smelting and products at Aurubis, said in the press release that, as a company involved in processing precious metals, “we are fundamentally at risk of becoming the focus of criminal activity.” 

“We therefore have the high prevention and security standards in place,” Arnold said. “Nevertheless, we have taken this incident as an opportunity to thoroughly analyze and revise these standards once again.”

Accidents impede production

The theft investigation comes after three people died due to a nitrogen leak at an Aurubis smelter in Hamburg, Germany. According to the company, around 2:30 a.m. on May 11, the three employees were conducting regular maintenance on the eastern primary smelter plant – a central part of the facility’s metal production – when the leak occurred. 

All three were taken to local hospitals. Two of the employees died the same day, and the third died the following day. 

Aurubis is working with the police on the investigation into the causes, a press release noted, and the company will provide an update when that investigation is complete. 

Roland Harings, CEO of Aurubis, said in a press release that “our hearts go out to their loved ones and everyone else affected.” 

“We want to express our deepest sympathy,” Harings added. “There will be an internal memorial service for the deceased employees.” 

Just a month later, on June 13, another copper smelter, this one Boliden’s Rönnskär facility in Skelleftehamn, Sweden, fell victim to a major accident in the form of a fire. According to a press release, “The extent of the fire was significant, but at present limited to the cell house.”

The cell house burned down entirely, the press release noted, and “it is currently not possible to assess the extent of the damage that has occurred.” However, there were no injuries.

All production has stopped until further notice, with the cessation likely lasting for at least several weeks, the press release stated. In 2022, the facility smelted 83,000 metric tons of e-scrap, making it one of the largest consumers of e-scrap in the world.  

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