Long Harbour -
The bulldozer jabbed its ripper - a long, claw-like device at the rear - into the earth and brought up solid in the ground. The dozer's caterpillar tracks began to turn, but after a short distance, started spinning hopelessly. The operator could only smile and shrug his shoulders.
That's what equipment operators are facing these days at the site of a massive construction project overlooking this tiny Placentia Bay community.
After months of dealing with ground saturated by unusually high amounts of rain, workers here have a new problem - earth hardened like concrete by bitterly cold temperatures.
It's breaking excavator buckets and slowing the pace of construction.
As a result, dozens of workers have been temporarily laid off in recent days, but officials with Vale Inco Newfoundland and Labrador say construction on its nickel processing plant is going according to plan.
"We are on target," said project director Ronaldo Stefan.
For the first time since construction began last spring, Vale Inco invited the media to tour the future site Thursday of its hydromet nickel processing plant. It's one of the largest construction projects underway in Eastern Canada, and is expected to intensify in a major way this spring.
But company officials are finding out construction work on the Avalon Peninsula is never easy, and sometimes full of surprises.
The amount of bog and unsuitable ground is far higher than anticipated, and a third quarry had to be activated at the site in order to supply the required amount of crushed rock. At the plant site, the location of the electrowinning building is now nine metres below grade.
It's just one of the reasons the overall cost of the project has risen from an initial estimate of US$2.2 billion to US$2.8 billion. There have also been significant engineering changes that have pushed up the price tag.
Changing the landscape
Visitors to the town of less than 300 residents are noticing some dramatic changes at the former site of the Albright and Wilson phosphorous plant, which is located at the base of a hill across the harbour from the community.
After years of inactivity, the landscape has been reshaped, some of the old buildings have been removed, and heavy equipment is constantly in motion.
An extensive environmental cleanup has also been completed, and there are plans to remediate the unsightly mound of slag that has been a constant reminder of the town's industrial history.
But it's beyond the view of ordinary citizens that the real work is taking place. On a plateau above the harbour, the earth is slowly being transformed by a legion of excavators, dump trucks, dozers and explosives experts. It's all in preparation for the construction of a first-of-its-kind processing plant.
When completed in 2013, the plant will use a hydromet process to produce nickel, copper and cobalt from concentrate mined at the company's mine in Voisey's Bay, Labrador. The technology was proven at a demonstration plant that operated for several years in nearby Argentia. The plant will employ between 400 and 500 employees when in operation.
Company officials were eager to demonstrate the massive scope of the project, which will dwarf the Come By Chance oil refinery and just about any other industrial site in the province.
"We don't do anything on a small scale," Stefan joked during the tour.
The plant's neutralization building, for example, will require some 4,500 tonnes of steel (nearly half the amount used to build France's Eiffel Tower) and be as long as four football fields. Some say it may be the largest building in the province. It will stand 40 metres high, and won't have any internal support columns.
In all, the company will pay for the construction of some one million square feet of structure space, or the equivalent of 10 Wal-Marts. All this will be situated on a parcel of land that occupies some 1,600 hectares of rugged Avalon Peninsula terrain.
For someone like Dan Donnolly, who's been involved in industrial construction projects since the 1970s, it's an exciting time.
"It's the best project most of us have ever been on," said Donnolly, the construction manager for Vale Inco.
Donnolly is a native of nearby Placentia, but has worked most of his career in Labrador, Eastern Canada and the United States.
There was also an emphasis on the lengths to which the company is going to be a steward of the environment. For instance, several dozen rare lichens were transplanted to another area before the forest was harvested, and a plan is in place to replace the fish habitat that will be destroyed by using Sandy Pond as a dumpsite for plant residue.
The company is also investing millions into the community of Long Harbour in the way of tax agreements and the construction of a fire hall, community centre and maintenance depot. A 45-room motel will also be built in the community.
"We believe that to be successful as a company, as well as an operation in Newfoundland, we have to make sure the towns we operate in are solid," said Stefan.
Meanwhile, the priority to this point has been civil work, including the construction of roads, stream crossings and preparing the plant site. An office building, a 1,000-person work camp and upgrades to the port facility will start soon.
The first concrete is expected to be poured this spring, and the workforce at the site is expected to peak at about 2,000 by next year.
"I'm very pleased where the project is today," Stefan explained. "We've been able to hit all our milestones."