Closing Time: Last hoist for Thompson’s Birchtree Mine – by John Barker (Soundings John Barker – September 30, 2017)

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On the surface, it was an unseasonably warm and brilliant orange early autumn day. Underground, it was closing time. Not last call, but rather the hard rock mining on-the-job equivalent: last hoist.

This day has almost come for Birchtree Mine in Thompson, Manitoba before. In fact, the day did come for Birchtree for most of a decade in the 1980s, as the mine was on “care and maintenance” because of unfavourable market conditions from December 1977 through 1989.

And on Oct. 18, 2012, Vale had announced care and maintenance was being considered for Birchtree Mine in 10 months time in August 2013. After finding $100 million in cost savings at its Manitoba Operations, bringing its cost per metric tonne for finished nickel to under US$10,000, Birchtree Mine would receive on May 6, 2013 a reprieve that lasted almost 4½ years. Until now.

As well as nickel, Birchtree has deposits of copper, cobalt, gold, silver, platinum and palladium. Re-opening of Birchtree was considered in 1981, but was deferred in favour of development of the Thompson open pit mine. Care and maintenance is a term used in the mining industry to describe processes and conditions on a closed minesite where there is potential to recommence operations at a later date. During a care and maintenance phase, production is stopped but the site is managed to ensure it remains in a safe and stable condition.

Preparation to place Birchtree on care and maintenance again some 28 years after its last mining production 12-year hiatus begins two days hence on Monday. Asset recovery is expected to be complete by mid-November, and the plan is for the mine to be officially on care and maintenance by Dec. 31.

The current life of mine plan has long anticipated the closure of Birchtree Mine at some point around now. Vale, however, could, as was the case with Inco in 1989, reopen Birchtree Mine should nickel prices rebound more strongly than forecast in the next few years, and the company has said it believes there is a future for the mine.

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