‘Finding a way’ to build B.C.’s next mine included a foray into power line construction for Imperial Metals
VANCOUVER — Imperial Metals chairman Pierre Lebel is on the cusp of opening a copper-gold mine, Red Chris, that the company won in a bidding war, financed and developed from an exploration project.
Once it goes into full production in the fall, B.C.’s next mine will employ about 270 people in an area with high unemployment and produce 88 million pounds of copper and 52,700 ounces of gold annually. Not bad for an “accidental” mining executive.
Lebel grew up in the mining hotbed of Sudbury, Ont., but his passion was law. After earning his MBA and a law degree, however, a call from a friend led to Calgary and a job with a small uranium prospect generator called E & B Explorations. That was in 1978.
“Before you know it, you’re doing less and less law and more and more business, and learning as you go along,” Lebel said during a recent interview in Imperial’s Vancouver offices.
E & B became Imperial Metals, and the young lawyer’s temporary gig led to a mine-building career at the helm of a public company that — once Red Chris is up and running — will employ about 900 B.C. residents at three mines.
Lebel, a father of four adult children who sits on the board of the Lions Gate Hospital Foundation, was named the Mining Person of the Year by the Mining Association of B.C. last year.
The path from exploration to production — one not many junior companies travel — is rife with financing, permitting and geopolitical pitfalls. Imperial managed it by assembling the right team and keeping them happy, while minimizing managerial interference, according to Lebel.
“There are a lot of desks around here where the buck stops,” he said.
About 490 workers, including welders, electricians and millwrights, are on-site at Red Chris completing the open-pit mine on a site 80 kilometres south of Dease Lake near Hwy 37. The price tag to build the mine is an estimated $500 million, and commissioning is scheduled for the summer.
“This is crunch time,” Lebel said. “Every day counts.”
Red Chris is located in the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation, whose leadership initially opposed the project on environmental grounds. Members of the Tahltan are now involved in both mine site and power line construction, and the company is finalizing an impacts and benefits agreement with the First Nation after extensive community meetings, Lebel said.
It will be the province’s first mine to tap into the 344-kilometre, 287-kilovolt Northwest Transmission Line, which snakes north from Terrace through mountainous terrain to Bob Quinn Lake, north of Stewart. Imperial is building the 95-km Iskut Extension to the NTL, part of a deal the company reached with Victoria that will see BC Hydro purchase the power line extension from Imperial.
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