Norm Tollinsky is editor of Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury. This column is from the December, 2013 issue.
Mine of the future brimming with state-of-the-art technology
It’s not every day that a new mine goes into production – not even in Sudbury, one of the world’s most important centres of mineral wealth – but, this month, Vale celebrates the official handover to operations at Totten Mine, 40 kilometres west of downtown Sudbury.
Hailed as “a mine of the future” by Kelly Strong, vice-president of Ontario and UK operations, Totten is brimming with advanced technologies.
“We’re very excited about this being our first new mine in over 40 years,” said Strong. “Totten demonstrates that we have this amazing resource under our feet here. Building Totten through some challenging economic times shows our commitment as a company to Sudbury. “One of the things you see in the mining industry is that the price cycle is shorter than the period of time it takes to complete a project,” noted Strong.
“So, when we undertake to build these big capital projects, we have to understand that we’re going to go through a downturn at some point – either at the front end, the middle or the end, and we have to have the discipline to continue through from front to back.”
That discipline hasn’t always been manifest. Inco, which was acquired by Vale in 2006, sunk two shafts at Totten beginning in 1966, but put the project on care and maintenance in 1972 and let it flood four years later.
Vale announced plans to bring Totten into production soon after acquiring Inco in 2006. AMEC was awarded a contract to build a water treatment plant as a prelude to dewatering the underground workings. Existing surface infrastructure was demolished and in 2007 Cementation was hired to begin rehabilitating the 4,130-foot Number 2 shaft.
It wasn’t always smooth sailing. Totten was supposed to cost $450 million and begin operating in the second quarter of 2011, but water ingress and other challenges encountered along the way delayed startup to December 2013 and the cost escalated to $760 million.
Meanwhile, the price of nickel went on a wild rollercoaster ride from $9 per pound in 2006, peaking at $24 per pound in 2007, then plunging to just over $4 in 2008.
Vale’s sixth operating mine in the Sudbury Basin, Totten will ramp up to a production output of 2,200 tonnes per day, representing 10 per cent of the feed to the company’s Clarabelle Mill.
“We’ll start up at 500 tonnes per day, but as we get into different ore zones, we’ll get up to full capacity by 2015- 2016,” said Strong.
A polymetallic orebody with “some good copper and nickel grades and precious metals,” Totten will initially result in a slight increase in production from Vale’s Sudbury operations, noted Strong. Over time, however, Totten and other mine development projects in the pipeline “will replace some of the ore we’ve been depleting, so our production levels will remain relatively stable over the next 10 years.”
Thanks largely to the deployment of advanced technology, Totten will be “at the lower end of the cost curve in comparison with other mines,” said Strong. “It’s a leaner operation that enables us to unlock some of the value in the reserves and resources we have. Once we get Totten running, we’ll look at implementing some of these technologies in our other five mines, as well as in future mine projects.”
Totten was also noteworthy in that it was the first time Vale (or Inco) has negotiated an impact benefit agreement with a First Nation. Located 70 kilometres west of Totten, the Sagamok First Nation benefits from business, training and employment opportunities.
“The agreement allows both Sagamok and Vale to see the success of Totten, so we’re very happy to be associated with Chief Paul Eshkakogan and his community,” said Strong.
Totten’s sterling safety record is another source of pride for Vale and suppliers who have worked at the site. Earlier this year, the development team celebrated one million man hours of work without a lost time injury, “a significant achievement considering the environment they worked in and the multiple contractors doing very unique, non-standard work,” said Strong.
The one-team philosophy adopted by Vale is cited as one of the main reasons for Totten’s safety record. “It didn’t matter if your hard hat said Vale, Cementation or some other company,” said Strong. “Everybody was part of one team.”
Also contributing to the success of the project was the Sudbury area’s supplier community. Dozens of Sudbury and North Bay suppliers participated in the project, including Cementation, Redpath, Technica Mining and SCR Mining and Tunnelling.
“We’re blessed with having so many suppliers of equipment and material right in our backyard,” said Strong. Totten provided a major boost to the local economy with upwards of 500 workers on site during construction, and 200 permanent jobs going forward.
Vale’s commitment to the Sudbury Basin goes beyond Totten, said Strong, pointing to the recently completed $200 million Challenging Ore Recovery project at Clarabelle Mill and the ongoing $1.1 billion Clean AER project at the company’s Copper Cliff smelter.
These, together with future mine expansion and development projects at the company’s Creighton and Copper Cliff mines, demonstrate “that we’re going to be here for a long time,” said Strong.