LKAB at Kiruna, Sweden
Former Toronto Maple Leaf All-Star Borje Salming made the trip from his hometown of Kiruna (pronounced ki-RU-na), Sweden, to Toronto many times during his career but for me, travelling the same route recently to where he was born was a first and it made me appreciate just how far he was from home.
In fact, Toronto to Kiruna is about a quarter of the way around the world and after too many hours on a plane to visit Kiruna, also site of the world’s largest underground iron ore mine, I can understand why Salming eventually took up permanent residency in Toronto.
In any event, it’s a long haul from Toronto to Sweden and the mine I recently toured in Kiruna. It began with an overnight flight to Copenhagen, followed by a sprint through the terminal to make the connection to Stockholm, and finally two hours aboard a packed and cramped commuter aircraft bound for town of Kiruna, population 18,000, located 145km beyond the Arctic Circle at the northern tip of Sweden.
Aside from Salming’s reputation, the sole reason the town is still on the map is because of the state-owned Luossavaara Kirunavaara Aktiebolag (LKAB) mine, which has been turning out high-grade, magnetite iron ore since 1898, and is expected to continue producing for another 50 years or more.
A century and a half is a long life for any mine and the foundation of the Kiruna mine’s longevity is a deposit which is 80m thick, 4.5km-wide and extends to a depth of at least 2000m.
According to company officials, that makes it the largest continuous iron ore deposit in the world and at grades of 65 to 70 iron, it is surely one of the richest.
Like I said, I had the privilege of touring the LKAB mine recently, including a stop at the visitor’s centre 540m below the surface followed by a descent to 1000m to witness mining operations. The tour came at the start of a week-long trip organized by the Swedish Trade and Investment Council (recently re-named Business Sweden) to promote the Scandinavian nation as a mining destination.
And I travelled in good company. Our delegation included three representatives of the South African coal gasification company Sasol Mining (Pty) Ltd., three representatives of Minmetals Mining Holdings Ltd., a division of a Beijing-based, state-owned conglomerate, and a dozen or so Australians from a variety of government agencies and mine service companies.
As it happened, I was the lone Canadian and Canadian Mining Journal the only Canadian publication, though the Swedish embassy in Ottawa extended invitations to a number of other companies and news organizations.
Our group attended a trade show called Euro Mine Expo that occupied all three pads of an arena complex in the city of Skalleftia, which is located on the Gulf of Bothnia in central Sweden. We visited the Boliden Group’s 85-year-old Ronnskar smelter in Skalleftia, which refines low-grade copper, lead, zinc clinker, gold and silver and manages to do it profitably because it one of most efficient smelting operations in the world.
We made two stops in the City of Lulea, north of Skalleftia on the shores of the Gulf of Bothnia, first at the Lulea University of Technology, an institution of 19,000 students and the self-described mining university of Europe, and then it was on to Swerea MEFOS, one of five Swedish research institutes jointly funded by government and private industry.
Our hosts impressed us throughout with the level of sophistication, automation and efficiency of the Swedish mining industry, as well as the industry’s commitment to improved performance in all areas.
At the LKAB mine, we watched a miner operating a boring machine remotely while seated in front of a computer terminal in an ATCO-style trailer 1000m below surface. The operator was drilling 10 holes, each 53m in length, into the ceiling of a gallery to form a fan-shaped pattern. Once complete, the holes were packed with three tonnes of dynamite and blasted to free hundreds of tonnes of ore that would be transported to surface.
Ore from the mine is processed into pellets approximately three-quarters of an inch in diameter and each day 15 trains hauling 68 wagons laden with pellets leave Kiruna for the port of Narvik in northern Norway and from there they are shipped to steelmakers elsewhere in Europe.
Pertti Lamberg, a professor of geometallurgy in the mining and metals department at the Lulea University of Technology, walked us through a joint government and industry initiative called Vision 2030 SMIFU, short for Sustainable Mining and Innovation for the Future.
One goal is to ensure that by 2030 there is no human presence in production areas and that all work processes are automated and controlled remotely.
Apart from that, the industry is striving for 30 per cent reductions in losses of ore, energy consumption, deposited waste, carbon dioxide emissions and lost time accidents per tonne of ore mined.
Swerea MEFOS serves the ferrous and nonferrous industries. Its 59 scientists and 27 engineers and technicians perform contract research for Swedish companies and for clients in dozens of other countries around the world, including Canada.
Among other things, they conduct metallurgical pilot tests in the world’s only, full-scale research blast furnace which stands 14m high, has a hearth that is 1.2m in diameter and can produce 36 tonnes of metal a day.
Sweden may be famous for its exports of cars (think Volvo), retailers such as IKEA, hockey players (too numerous to name), and modern mining technology (see sidebar), but it is also a major European mining nation.
For example, Sweden is the continent’s top producer of iron and lead, it is number two in gold, zinc and silver and it is fourth in copper. It also has a rich mining tradition.
The Falu copper mine operated, though not continuously, from the seventh century until 1993 and the country’s first underground mines were developed in the 11th or 12th century.
Today there are 16 producing mines in Sweden, but the country has ambitions to grow that number to as many as 47 by 2030 and it welcomes, indeed encourages, foreign investment in its mineral sector.
Representatives of several government agencies pointed out the advantages of investing in their country during a series of presentations at the head offices of Business Sweden in downtown Stockholm.
The country has a corporate tax rate of 22 per cent, which is competitive with other developed jurisdictions, there are no royalties on minerals, no regional or local corporate taxes, and interest payments are fully deductible for tax purposes.
The Geological Survey of Sweden maintains a publicly accessible National Drill Core Archive of approximately 3000km of cores, however, only a portion of them have been analyzed and then only for certain minerals, meaning that there may be untapped deposits awaiting discovery at the Survey’s Mineral Resources Information office in Malå, about 120km west of Skellefteå.
Finally, Sweden ranked number one out of 112 jurisdictions in the Fraser Institute’s 2013 survey of mining company executives.
Sweden’s advantages have attracted a number of Canadian companies in recent years.
In 2004, Toronto-based Lundin Mining Corp. acquired the Zinkgruvan zinc and copper mine from Rio Tinto. It is located 250km southwest of Stockholm and has produced since 1857, making it the longest continuously operated mine in the country.
Several junior companies have also invested in Sweden, including Vancouver-based Tasman Metals Ltd., which is developing two rare earth element properties, and Flinders Resources of Vancouver, which acquired an open pit graphite mine that was in production between 1997 and 2001 before being mothballed when prices fell sharply.
President and Chief Executive Officer Blair Way said his company has invested just under $5 million to rehabilitate the processing plant and put the mine back into operation and production was set to begin this summer.
“The big attraction with Sweden is you’re doing business in a developed country,” says Way, who has also worked in a number of less developed nations.
“There’s no crazy back door stuff. The environmental regulations are very clear and easy to understand. There’s lots of skilled labour. There are very few issues with language. English and Swedish are used interchangeably. It’s very similar to doing a project in Canada.”