Northern Promise: Mining projects spark much-needed Sept-Îles port expansion – by Nicolas Van Praet (National Post – September 17, 2013)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

Northern Promise is a six-part series that explores the pace and progress of development in Canada’s remote communities. In this fifth instalment, Nicolas Van Praet explores mining projects in northern Quebec

SEPT-ÎLES, Que. – The sun is setting on a cool September evening in this northern Quebec port town and three cargo ships sit anchored in the half-moon bay.

From this distance several kilometres away, the ocean-going freighters look like giant match sticks waiting to be struck. Above them, storm clouds hang like a menacing hook and behind, you can sketch the outline of North America’s biggest primary aluminum smelter — Alouette, its hill-perched electrolytic pots powered by transmission wires stretching from Hydro Quebec’s massive Churchill Falls hydroelectric facility.

Sept-Îles, named for the seven-island archipelago that fronts the bay, is a 10-km wide natural harbour in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence some 650-km downriver from Quebec City. The waters here are deep, plunging down as much as 80 metres, and they’re free of ice for year-round passage — a huge advantage for commodity producers getting their goods to market.

The port today is the only way out for the vast reserves of iron ore mined in the Labrador Trough, the sole gateway to get the steel-making substance by sea to its most important market: China. And if it’s already a strategic site — the port handled 28 million metric tonnes in 2012, making it Canada’s third-biggest port after Vancouver and Saint John, N.B. by volume — bullish forecasters say you ain’t seen nothing yet.

“There’s a reality here that many people can’t quite grasp yet in terms of the impact to come in the years ahead as all these new mining projects come online and export their ore through our port,” said Port of Sept-Îles President Pierre Gagnon. “Realistically, we can punch through the 100-million-tonne barrier in five to 10 years. And if all the currently planned production moves forward, it will be more than double that.”

When the Iron Ore Co. of Canada (IOC) first came to the area in the late 1940s to lay the groundwork for a new 575-km railway north to the iron ore riches of the Quebec-Labrador border region (a massive project for the time that involved 6,000 men hacking through the inhospitable mountains, bog and scrub of previously untouched wilderness), project managers for the company found a puny village of 350 Québécois fishermen.

As the February 1954 issue of Popular Mechanics described it: “It was the last northeastern outpost of civilization this side of Goose Bay. Ships unloaded right on the ice.”

Sixty years later, that pint-sized place and its previously inconsequential economy is a distant memory.

The catalyst for all this growth? A new multi-user wharf south across the Sept-Îles bay at Pointe Noire being built at a cost of $220-million. When completed, the 450-metre-long dock will be able to accommodate up to 50 million tonnes of material a year carried by the largest bulk carriers in the world — 350,000-tonne-and-up Chinamax ships. Another 50 million tonnes of capacity can be added by expanding the dock facility later.

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