The Voisey's Bay Mine

The Voisey's Bay nickel-copper-cobalt mine is located in northern Labrador, about 35 kilometres southwest of Nain. The project encompasses a mine and concentrator at Voisey's Bay and port facilities in nearby Anaktalak Bay to ship the ore. In addition, a processing plant is being built at Long Harbour, on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula. Construction started in 2009 and is expected to be end in 2013.

The prospecting company Diamond Resources discovered the mineral reserves in 1993 and sold them to Canadian mining company Inco (now Brazilian-owned Vale Inco) in 1996 for $4.3 billion. Inco entered into negotiations with the provincial government as well as with Labrador's Innu and Inuit people before reaching an agreement to exploit the resource in 2002. Mining operations began in 2005.

Workers are extracting ore from an open-pit mine, which allows them to reach deposits close to the surface. Once these reserves have been depleted, Vale Inco intends to begin mining underground. The company is also building a large processing plant at Long Harbour, Placentia Bay where it will process ore mined from Voisey's Bay. The facility will use hydromet technology, which Inco tested at a small demonstration plant it built and operated at the nearby community of Argentia between 2004 and 2008. Hydrometallurgy is a new technology that uses water, oxygen and other materials to dissolve precious metals from raw ore. Unlike smelting, the hydromet process does not release sulphur dioxide and harmful dust particles into the environment.

The mining, processing, construction, and shipping activities associated with the Voisey's Bay project have made it an important employer in Labrador and in the Placentia Bay area. The majority of its employees are local residents and many workers are Innu or Inuit. The Newfoundland and Labrador government anticipates the Voisey's Bay project will add approximately $20.7 billion to the province's gross domestic product during the mine's estimated 30-year lifespan.

Discovery

In 1993, the diamond prospectors Al Chislett and Chris Verbiski inadvertently discovered large nickel, copper, and cobalt deposits at Voisey's Bay while under contract with Diamond Resources. Their find proved to be one of the most significant nickel discoveries of the late-20th century and attracted attention from international mining companies, including Canadian-owned Falconbridge and Inco (which later changed its name to Vale Inco after merging with Brazilian-owned Companhia Vale do Rio Doce in 2006).

Voisey's Bay appealed to mining interests for a variety of reasons. Its nickel, copper, and cobalt reserves are abundant, of a high grade, and close enough to the deep-water port of Edward's Cove, Anaktalak Bay, to allow for relatively speedy shipment to processing plants in Ontario and on the island of Newfoundland. Further, sizeable deposits are close to the surface and can therefore be extracted in open-pit mines which are much cheaper to build and maintain than underground mines, and significantly reduce operating costs.

In the end, Inco bought the Voisey's Bay deposits for $4.3 billion in 1996. The company then entered into negotiations with the provincial government, the Labrador Inuit Association (LIA), and the Innu Nation to obtain mining rights. It also completed an Environmental Impact Statement for the federal government's Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency in which it agreed to fulfill various environmental obligations, such as monitoring contaminant levels close to the project site, controlling the amount of dust raised by the open pit operation, preventing nearby waterways from being contaminated, and developing an environmental protection plan for black bears.

Negotiations

When Inco bought the Voisey's Bay deposits in 1996, both the LIA and Innu Nation were engaged in land claims negotiations with the provincial government which included the Voisey's Bay area. Neither group wished to see a mining operation on its land without having a say on the process. Historically, Labrador's Aboriginal peoples have suffered tremendous socio-economic losses after industrial developments have occurred on their land without their permission. In 1969, for example, the Churchill Falls hydroelectric project flooded vast stretches of Innu land, yet industry and government officials did not consult with Innu people before using their land, nor did they offer compensation once the damage became apparent.

Thus Inco had to negotiate and sign impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) with the LIA and the Innu Nation. IBAs are formal, written contracts between Aboriginal groups and industrial developers that specify the responsibilities of each party in areas such as employment, training, wealth distribution, and environmental protection. They are intended to protect the economic, social and other interests of Aboriginal groups. Both the Innu Nation and the LIA signed IBAs with Inco in 2002. The documents ensure Innu and Inuit people will obtain jobs and training opportunities, and that the Innu Nation and the Nunatsiavut Government (created in 2005) will receive royalties from the Voisey's Bay mine.

The same year, Inco also reached agreement with the provincial government. Inco is obligated to hire qualified local residents to work in the mine, plant, and other facilities before considering other job applicants. In Labrador, for example, Innu and Inuit people receive first priority, followed by other Labrador residents, then by Newfoundland residents, and lastly by people living outside the province. Residents of Placentia Bay, meanwhile, receive first priority for construction and other work at processing plants. In addition, Inco must give preference to qualified local businesses to provide the various goods and services needed to complete the project.

Inco is also obligated to provide local residents with training opportunities that will give them the necessary skills to work in the mining industry. Related to this is Inco's agreement to spend $20 million on the construction and maintenance of Memorial University's Inco Innovation Centre, a facility intended to in part perform research in mining and metallurgical technology.

Mining and Processing

The mining project makes use of a variety of facilities to extract, transport, and process ore. In Labrador are the mine and concentrator at Voisey's Bay and port facilities in nearby Anaktalak Bay for the shipping of ore to off-site processing facilities. Mined ore is sent to the concentrator (also known as a mill plant), which separates much of the waste material from the valuable minerals in the ore. Workers produce two types of concentrates at Voisey's Bay: a copper concentrate and a nickel-cobalt-copper concentrate.

Trucks bring the concentrate to a shipping wharf at Edward's Cove, Anaktalak Bay, which is about 11 kilometres north of the Voisey's Bay mine. From there, the ore travels by ship to Quebec and then by rail to a processing plant in Sudbury, Ontario. Inco sent its first shipment of concentrate to Ontario on 16 November 2005. However, the processing of Voisey's Bay ore outside the province is a temporary measure – once the processing plant opens at Long Harbour, Placentia Bay, all Voisey's Bay ore will be refined there.

Under its agreement with the province, Inco is also obligated to return to Long Harbour at least as much ore as it will send to Ontario from Labrador. This will be in addition to the ore arriving at Long Harbour from Voisey's Bay and will therefore guarantee that the province will refine at least as much ore as it produces in Labrador.

The Voisey's Bay project has brought much employment to Newfoundland and Labrador. Construction of the mine and concentrator created approximately 5,000 jobs in Labrador and the operation of these facilities employs about 450 workers. Vale Inco estimates it will need an additional 350 workers when it starts underground mining, which will increase its Labrador workforce to 800. Construction of the Long Harbour plant is expected to last for four years and employ a peak of 1,600 workers. Once the plant starts operating, it will likely employ about 450 permanent workers. The Argentia plant employed about 200 workers while it was operating.

Article by Jenny Higgins. ©2011, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site

Economy Bibliography


Partnered Projects Introduction - Table of Contents Site Map Search Heritage Web Site Home