A look back - and ahead - at Voisey's Bay

Ashley
Ashley Fitzpatrick
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The suggestion of a mining prospect as "another Voisey's Bay" is not unusual to hear from marketers at mining conferences in Newfoundland and Labrador.
Voisey's Bay was the discovery of a lifetime. A centre of political controversy before its construction, the mine about 35 kilometres southwest of Nain stands as the source of millions of dollars in annual revenues for the province, billions in infrastructure investment and, well, continuing controversy.

Earlier this month, at Mining Industry NL's Resource Investors Forum in St. John's, Voisey's Bay was front and centre in a keynote presentation by Jeff McLaughlin, vice-president of Vale Newfoundland and Labrador.

"It was a discovery 20 years ago now, dare I say, 20 years ago," he said, highlighting the anniversary.

The discovery of the mineral deposit was made in 1993, by prospectors Chris Verbiski and Al Chislett. Three years later, mining company Inco did a deal for the property. Vale would acquire Inco in 2006.

In jobs and profits, McLaughlin said Voisey's Bay remains, "a good example of what can happen with the right incentive and the right reward."

 

The development of the mine would not have happened without the agreements signed June 11, 2002 by the federal government, aboriginal governments and - most commonly credited for the deal - Liberal premier Roger Grimes.

"It took mutual patience and determination to conclude this agreement," McLaughlin said.

Grimes has been repeatedly applauded for the deal by candidates in the Liberal leadership race.

This week, with a copy of the Voisey's Bay News set in front of him at The Telegram offices, he recalled how critics at the time were calling the deal "a giveaway" of natural resources, one you could drive a Mack truck through.

"The province needed an economic shot in the arm, an economic boost," he said, adding he has no regrets about what was signed.

The Liberal government - in the Red books of the 1990s and public speeches - promised a processing facility would be built for the ore mined at Voisey's Bay.

It was a push for something more than the straight mining and shipping of provincial minerals, common to the iron mines of Labrador West.

Grimes said Voisey's Bay was recognized as "massive."

It could have been developed sooner, he said, but for a comment made by his predecessor Brian Tobin to reporters - that not one spoonful of unprocessed ore would leave the province.

He suggested it was a misstep, blown up by opposition, realistically meaning no deal could be done until Tobin left office.

"He made a really serious attempt to do a deal," Grimes said. "He wanted it to happen. He knew it needed to happen."

But it was long felt that the mining company would need some leeway to produce and export, to generate revenue from the mine to put against the cost of construction of a new processing facility.

Taking over from Tobin, Grimes said he went looking for a viable agreement.

 

"It wasn't a one-sided thing they could just walk away from," he said of the deal.

He demanded a promise for a processing plant. Any material mined and sent out of the province before the plant was up and running would be replaced by imports after the fact, it stated.

In 2002 construction progressed at the mine site. Quickly, the area of the construction camp was replaced by fuel tanks and the fly-in, fly-out location became home to what was the largest, covered building in the province (a processing plant building now holds the designation).

Danny Williams and the Tories came to power in 2003. First ore from the mine came in 2005.

A test facility for hydromet processing was established at Argentia, while engineering progressed on the main plant.

At least $200 million would later be spent on research and development for the plant, for a new process of treating nickel with a hydrometallurgical process.

While research and testing went on, one challenge after another came at Voisey's Bay, with more than one strike and a shutdown in 2008, tied to the global recession.

And, over the years, the Williams government made amendments to Grimes' Voisey's Bay deal.

One in 2009 stated Vale was to complete construction of its processing facility at Long Harbour by Feb. 28, 2013.

 

Construction of the processing plant was sanctioned in 2009.

On July 23, 2013, Williams' successor, current premier Kathy Dunderdale, announced a deal reached to allow the Voisey's Bay mine to push underground - extending its operational life until at least 2035.

The deal is another update to the original Voisey's Bay agreement. It pushes back the timeline for the processing plant to 2015.

In exchange, Vale is required to pay $100 million to the province over the next three years.

At the mine, construction work is scheduled to start in 2015-16, with first underground ore in 2019.

For processing, the transition from construction to operations at the plant in Long Harbour will begin in November.

Start-up is a long process and newly-built systems in the $4.25-billion, multi-building facility have to be tested, brought online one by one, used to process imported, cleaner feed material to establish proper operation and, then, work the Voisey's Bay material into finished nickel.

Once operational, as McLaughlin boasted to his audience of company men and investors, "they can produce good quality metal for a long time," continuing the legacy of the find at Voisey's Bay.

 

Organizations: Inco, Resource Investors Forum, Vale Newfoundland and Labrador Bay News Argentia

Geographic location: St. John's, Long Harbour

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