Vale marking 60 years of mining in Thompson this weekend – by Ian Graham (Thompson Citizen – June 15, 2016)

We weren’t even supposed to be here today, but the ore that is the foundation of Thompson in both the literal and figurative senses has outlived the original projections of its lifespan more than twofold, making it possible for Vale, which bought Inco in 2006, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Thompson operations this weekend.

When the decision to establish a mine and a town to service it was made following the discovery of nickel deposits in 1956, the plan was for the community – and its infrastructure – to be around for 25 years, says Vale Manitoba Operations corporate affairs and organizational development manager Ryan Land. That it has far outlasted that prediction means the community is now repairing and replacing much of that infrastructure but also that Thompson itself has grown to become more than just a mining town.

“We are already a diversified economy,” says Land. “That regional hub thing is real. The region sustains Thompson as much as Vale if not more.”

And while, given the current nickel prices and the fact that Vale has asked a lot from its employees during the belt-tightening of the past several years, a big blowout for the whole town is neither economically nor symbolically practical, it’s important to mark the beginning of the seventh decade of nickel mining and processing in Thompson.

“It’s a significant milestone and you have to acknowledge it,” says Land.

That acknowledgement will include a full day of events ranging from displays, a magic show, music and a mini miners competition for Vale employees and their families at the Thompson Regional Community Centre June 18 and more events at the Heritage North Museum on Sunday, including tours of the company’s operations for employees and families. The weekend will close with its only event that is open to the public – a performance by the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. June 19 at the Letkemann Theatre at R.D. Parker Collegiate.

Vale is suggesting that a donation of $10 per family be made by those attending, with all proceeds going to support the Thompson Music Students Association. Saturday’s events will also see Thompson artist Jasyn Lucas at the TRCC to sign commemorative prints of a painting commissioned by Vale to mark the 60th anniversary, the theme of which is “60 Years Proud.”

A lot has changed since the establishment of the first mine and associated facilities in Thompson, including the speed at which a company could jump all the regulatory hurdles between discovery of ore and its extraction from the ground.

“At that time [1956], you could move remarkably quickly from discovery to production,” says Land. Even more important, he says, is the difference in safety. Mining has gone from an industry in which fatalities and injuries were a fairly regular occurrence to one in which deaths are thankfully rare. Vale’s Manitoba Operations marked a whole year – 3.75 million hours worked – without any lost-time injuries in February. And while the mines and smelter and refinery are producing more nickel than even, they are doing so with less than half of the peak employment of 4,000 workers that it once had, with technology having increased efficiency, among other benefits.

“Technology keeps people out of harm’s way,” Land says.

Although the closure of the smelter and refinery is now only about two years away, Land says the company believes there’s a longer-term future for mining and milling in Thompson.

“There’s resources in the ground that we know about and we believe there’s more potentially,” Land says. “Down the line I think we’ll get to another milestone. Seventy-five would potentially be a big one.”

That said, no one can predict the future and projected closure dates are always shifting based on a number of factors. L:and notes, however, that while other Manitoba mining towns often receive just a few months’ notice when a company decides to shut down, Vale has provided more than that to Thompson just for the closure of its refinery and smelter.

“Thompson will have had nearly eight years’ notice on a change in what we will be doing,” Land says.

Despite the difficulties that closure will bring, Land notes that the community has survived downturns before, including several years when the Birchtree mine was closed, and emerged when conditions improved.

“Thompson persevered,” says Land.

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