Sudbury Must Become Mining Technology Leader – Stan Sudol

This article was originally published in the Sudbury Star on August 8 , 2003

Sudbury is the greatest mining centre in the world:it’s time we were treated like it

The Sudbury Nickel Basin is the greatest mining camp the world has ever seen. It has been in continuous operation for over 100 years and after the Alberta Tar Sands, is the second most important natural resource in this country. The total value of historic mineral production and present reserves from the Basin exceeds $320 billion U.S.

Nickel, a greyish-white metal, is an essential component of stainless steel, the industrialized world’s wonder alloy. Stainless steel’s resistance to oxidation, corrosion and insolubility in water, is used for hospital equipment, electronics, aerospace super-alloys, military weapons, batteries, and even the coins in your pocket and the kitchen sink. The modern digitized, globalized economy of the 21st century would quite literally grind to a halt without nickel.

Notwithstanding the current labour disruptions at Inco Limited, Sudbury is not dying and the 14 active nickel mines that account for approximately 12 per cent of the world’s supply of nickel are not running out of ore. In fact, in the past few years, five significant new deposits have been discovered.  In the geological world, these discoveries are absolutely astonishing for a mining camp as old and well explored as Sudbury.

Many geologists believe the prolific Sudbury Igneous Complex will still be producing nickel, copper, cobalt, gold, silver and platinum group metals one hundred years from now and will still be contributing generous tax revenues for both provincial and federal treasuries all the while.

During the past twenty-five years, corporate downsizing at both Inco and Falconbridge, combined with modernizations and pollution controls has produced the most cost efficient nickel producers in the world. In addition, the outsourcing of mining supply and services has helped establish about 350 locally-based companies that are involved in mining related activity. They employ approximately 8000 people – more than the two mining giants combined.

More money is spent within a 500 kilometer radius of Sudbury on underground hardrock mining supplies than anywhere else in Canada, the United States or Chile.

Inco alone spends $800 million a year in purchases to keep its Sudbury operations running.  That is the single biggest demand for mining services in the country, of which a considerable percentage is spent in the Sudbury district.

Technological Revolution

There is a technological revolution surging through the mining industry and Sudbury is at its epicentre. The rapidly growing cluster of mining supply and service firms are adapting innovations and new technologies and transforming the city into the mining sector’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. This “Silicon Mining” cluster routinely exports its products and expertise around the world.

Clusters are concentrations of related companies and service providers found in a specific area or city. The numerous telecommunications companies in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata, or the many oil supply and service companies in Houston, Texas are excellent examples of thriving industry clusters. They are the key to wealth creation and the establishment of high paying jobs, primarily through the export of goods and services.

Sudbury, northern Ontario’s most populated community, has a larger Gross Domestic Product ($5.4 billion) than Prince Edward Island ($3.4 billion) and the three territories.  It is about time governments recognize the global importance of Sudbury’s rapidly growing mining cluster and designate the city as a national centre of mining excellence.

The city should be designated a national center of mining excellence and strategic investments by both levels of government in this growing an dynamic sector would further enhance the community’s international reputation and help stem the depopulation of the surrounding rural economy.

The federal government has established an Aluminum Technology Centre in Quebec’s Lac-Saint Jean region, the centre of that province’s aluminum industry. This centre will help Quebec become a world leader and innovator in aluminum technology and is based on the fact that Canada is the fourth largest aluminum producer in the world.

Canada is the second largest producer of nickel and Sudbury is at the centre of some of the most revolutionizing experiments in mining robotics and automation. In fact, Prime Minister Chretien, in a 1994 visit, was photographed operating an underground robotic scoop tram from the surface many kilometres away. This expertise must be encouraged.

The federal government should establish a $150 million high-tech research institute for telematics and robotics to ensure the country’s lead in this strategic technology. This leading edge facility could include research in robotics, sophisticated telecommunications, positioning and navigational systems, software integration and the use of electronics in a harsh environment.

Sudbury’s hard-rock drilling technology is also in competition to supply a lightweight robotic drill for NASA’s space mission to Mars.

In addition, the Sudbury nickel mines are an integral link to the vast American military industrial complex. Nickel is an essential component of stainless steel and many specialty alloys that are used in the manufacturing of tanks, fighter jets and other military hardware. 

The United States is dependent on foreign production for all its nickel supplies. Most nickel deposits, outside of Canada and Australia, are in politically less stable countries while the Sudbury operations are America’s largest, closest, and most secure supply of this strategic metal.

Harvard of the Mining Sector

The Ontario government should centralize all the province’s post-secondary mining engineering and geological programs at Laurentian University and create a world class institute – a Harvard of the mining sector. The current mining engineering programs at the University of Toronto and Queens University in Kingston are dying and attract little attention from the large engineering faculties they are attached to. By transferring these orphaned programs to Sudbury, they would receive the proper funding and significantly contribute to the community’s status as a centre of mining education.

The provincial government can also encourage Sudbury’s mining technology cluster by restoring the funding cuts of the past eight years to the Ontario Geological Survey. This provincial agency provides essential geoscience data to Ontario’s $6.4 billion mining sector to efficiently explore and develop the province’s mineral resources.

Senior governments have a key co-ordination and funding role that can send a clear signal to the private sector that Sudbury is the place where new innovation in the mining sector will continue and grow.

If the meteorite, that became the foundation for Sudbury’s rich ore deposits over 1,850 million years ago, had crashed into Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or Minnesota, instead of northern Ontario, there would be no doubt in anyone’s mind about the significant investment and promotion our American neighbours would give this geological treasure.

It is time both levels of government recognize the global importance these ore deposits and make the necessary strategic investments that will build the best centre of mining excellence in the world and revitalize the Northern Ontario economy.