Looking toward operations at Long Harbour

Workforce shifting as construction begins to decline from its peak

Ashley Fitzpatrick afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com
Published on October 6, 2012
Pipefitters Keegan Benoit (left) and Gerald Carter prepare large water pipes Friday for assembly outside the neutralization plant at the Vale nickel processing facility at Long Harbour. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

Employment has peaked on construction at Vale’s nickel processing facility at Long Harbour, with 25 contractors and about 4,700 employees now active at the site.

Shifts can see anywhere from 1,800 to 2,800 tradespeople working at any given time on the almost

$4-billion build, but that will change as work moves into 2013.

By September of that year, Vale is hoping to test-run operation of the plant, feeding it with a small load of high-quality material from Indonesia. From there, operations will ramp up over three years to full production.

Labour availability has been the main issue for the project during construction.

“We pretty much exhausted the supply of some of the trades in the province,” said Vale’s project director, Rinaldo Stefan, speaking with reporters at the site Friday.

Stefan said “contingency options” for housing workers, including the option of a so-called “flotel,” had also been explored, but the worker camp and local community have ultimately provided all of the housing required.

There is still construction work to be done, but Stefan said moving on the contingency plans for housing is now unlikely.

Transition in progress

With 11 million person hours now put in on site and 14 million hours on the project in total, construction is about 65 per cent complete.

From the ground, the construction appears further along, but there are internal hookups, connections and close-quarters work inside the immense processing facility buildings to come now.

While trades such as electricians and plumbers will be needed for the work, delivery of materials to the site are “getting fewer and fewer” and other tradespeople and subcontractors will soon start finishing up at the site.

In other words, there is a big layoff coming at Long Harbour.

That said, it is a layoff planned and expected from Day 1, as part of the transition from plant construction to operations.

Already, the project office in St. John’s is seeing a transition from the construction team leaders to leaders for the facility’s operations — with over 100 employees already hired for that team.

As construction winds down, Stefan will begin handing off the site leader’s cap to the general manager responsible for plant operations, Don Stevens.

Long-term jobs now in play

For operation, the Long Harbour plant will have about 500 direct jobs with Vale. About 300 will be “technician” positions.

This month, a first round of advertising will go out in an attempt to attract skilled workers within the province to those jobs.

Stevens said the search will begin by looking at those who were involved in Vale’s test processing facility at Argentia. It will then move to workers in close proximity to Long Harbour. The search will then expand provincially and, if needed, beyond.

However, “we expect to get those (technicians) locally,” he said. “We’ll be looking primarily for people with the right behaviours and attitudes. We’ll be looking for people who want to come into this organization.”

The technician positions will be “hybrid” positions, with each having slightly different requirements. Generally speaking, Stevens said, the jobs can be a fit for someone with experience at a smelter or refinery, but also skilled tradespeople who have not worked in either of those environments.

Diversity will be considered in hiring, with the company looking to have women represented at 20 to 25 per cent of the operations team.

Meanwhile, reporters were taken through the site and shown the progress in getting the plant ready to run.

The tour included a look inside the 340-metre-long “neutralization building.” Pockets of people, clusters of half a dozen at a time, could be seen working within a few metres of each other throughout the structure. As an example of the change from construction to operation, only 20 workers will ultimately spend their days in and around the building.

As for getting it producing for profit, “we expect to get nickel out by the end of (2013),” Stevens said.

When running at full capacity, output from the plant will be about 50,000 tonnes of nickel a year, 4,500 tonnes of copper and 2,300 to 2,500 tonnes of cobalt.