Nickel is king is the north
Since December 1997, the Raglan mine in the far north of Qubec has been pumping out a significant amount of nickel and copper concentrate for its owner, Falconbridge Limited. The Toronto-based company is the world’s third largest nickel producer, accounting for 8% of world supply in 2002.
Raglan is unique on many counts: it is the only mine in Qubec’s far north, the only nickel mine in Qubec, and is Falconbridge’s only mine in the province. It is operated by a wholly-owned subsidiary of Falconbridge, Socit minire Raglan du Qubec lte (SMRQ), based in Rouyn-Noranda.
Raglan falls within Falconbridge’s Integrated Nickel Operations (INO), which includes the Sudbury mines and smelters, a significant custom feed business, and the Nikkelverk nickel refinery in Kristiansand, Norway. The Falconbridge management team and that of its 59.7%-owner, Noranda Inc., were melded last year, and considering that change, the INO plus Falconbridge Dominicana are referred to as Noranda’s nickel business unit.
The opening of the Raglan mine (CMJ June 1998) was the result of 40 years of exploration and development in the area by Falconbridge. Its remote, Arctic location–105 km south of the northern tip of the Ungava Peninsula–required the innovative use of construction and transportation technologies as well as cutting-edge partnership with the Inuit residents in the region’s villages, the Raglan Agreement. The $550-million project began operation in December 1997, three months ahead of schedule.
At the time of its opening, Raglan had 345 employees, about 20% of them Inuit. Today the workforce numbers 470, of which 15% are Inuit. A new 4-year collective agreement was reached in 2002 with Raglan’s production and maintenance workers, who are members of Local 9449 of the United Steelworkers of America union.
There is both an open pit and an underground mine as well as a concentrator at the permanent camp, Katinniq, which produces a bulk nickel-copper concentrate. The concentrate is transported approximately 100 km via truck to port facilities where it is loaded onto bulk ore carriers, which have to break through thick ice half the year to haul the concentrate to Qubec City. There the concentrate is offloaded for rail shipment to Sudbury.
The original design rate for the Raglan mill was 100 tonnes/hour (800,000 tonnes/year) to produce about 21,000 tonnes of nickel annually plus 5,000 tonnes of copper, 200 tonnes of cobalt and platinum group metals. This was about half of the amount of nickel produced by Falconbridge’s Sudbury area mines, so it provided about a third of the Sudbury smelter feed.
Over the last five years, as the Sudbury-area mines’ production has faltered, Raglan has become a much more important factor in Falconbridge’s nickel production. In 2001, Raglan increased its annual rate of milled tonnage to 961,000 tonnes of ore, producing 24,570 tonnes of nickel in concentrate. In 2002, the amount of ore milled slipped to 868,000 tonnes, but the grade of the ore was higher (3.35% Ni, 0.97% Cu), so the output of nickel in concentrate stayed about the same at 24,636 tonnes (plus 6,500 tonnes of copper in concentrate). The better grade resulted in a productivity improvement at Raglan of 5% last year, measured by the amount of metals produced per hour worked.
An optimization program aims to increase the amount of nickel concentrate that Raglan produces. The plan for 2003 is for Raglan to return to an annual production of about 950,000 tonnes of ore, making 24,500 tonnes of nickel is concentrate. This will be almost as much as the nickel in concentrate planned for Falconbridge’s Sudbury area mines this year (26,500 tonnes).
At the time of the official mine opening (July 1998), Raglan had mineral reserves of 22.1 million tonnes at a remarkably rich grade: 3.06% Ni and 0.87% Cu (proven, probable and including 4.8 million tonnes in the now-defunct “possible” category) and 0.2 million tonnes of indicated mineral resources plus 1.5 million tonnes of inferred mineral resources.
To the end of 2002, Raglan has produced a total of 4.2 million tonnes of ore grading 3.06% Ni and 0.90% Cu. Exploration efforts on the 48,655-ha property have succeeded in replacing most of this ore. Diamond drilling and geophysical surveys completed in 2002 resulted in the discovery of two mineralized zones, the Katinniq and 5-8 zones. At the end of 2002, mineral reserves (proven plus probable) stood at 18.1 million tonnes grading 2.88% Ni and 0.79% Cu, with 2.9 million tonnes of measured plus indicated mineral resources (grading 1.95% Ni and 0.72% Cu) and a further 3.4 million tonnes of inferred mineral resources (grading 2.7% Ni and 0.87% Cu).
Exploration success such as this means that Raglan has a bright future in the frosty North.