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Clock not but ticking for First Quantum to halt Panama mine -minister

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A general view of Cobre Panama mine owned by Canada’s First Quantum Minerals in Donoso, Panama December 6, 2022. REUTERS/Aris Martinez/File Photo

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By Valentine Hilaire

(Reuters) -The 10-day limit set by Panama’s government last month for Canadian miner First Quantum (NASDAQ:) to offer a plan to shut down its mine amid a contentious contract dispute has not yet started, the country’s commerce minister said on Wednesday.

The order to pause operations at the massive Cobre Panama mine stems from a dispute that started in late 2021, after a Supreme Court ruling declared unconstituional the law under which the contract was signed. The government on Tuesday called the contract invalid, whereas First Quantum asserts the contact remains valid.

First Quantum, however, asserts the contact remains valid.

But the company must still make a $375 million payment to the government for its 2022 operations, even when it was operating without a contract, Minister Federico Alfaro told Reuters.

The company has until this Friday to appeal the order, said Alfaro, who has been leading negotiations with First Quantum. His ministry will then review any appeals before the 10-day period formally begins, he added, but declined to provide a specific deadline.

The lucrative copper mine is an important asset for both sides of the dispute, as a major source of earnings for the company as well as accounting for about 3.5% of Panama’s economy.

Contract termination terms are among the sticking points to reach an agreement, the minister said. He noted the company is asking the government to pay 85% of the mine’s fair market value in the event of termination.

Responding to a request for comment, a First Quantum spokesperson pointed to remarks by CEO Tristan Pascall on Tuesday that did not detail any company proposal if its mine is terminated.

Pascall instead emphasized his readiness to agree to, and even exceed, government demands on environmental and labor standards as well as revenues in a new contract.

The government hopes to reach a deal with the firm via regular meetings with First Quantum representatives, said Alfaro.

Since last month, both parties are in arbitration, with Alfaro expressing confidence as talks continue.

“We’re in the best position to defend the interests of the state as has been done in other arbitration processes between private companies and the government,” he said. “We’re ready.”

But the minister stressed that his preferred outcome is to reach a deal before the 90-day cooling period ends, as stipulated in the arbitration under a Canada-Panama trade pact.

Alfaro also noted that the government is prepared in the event no new deal is reached with the miner, noting that lawyers and other international experts have been proactively hired “to contemplate all options.”

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