Trail Operations at 100
The mindset at the huge smelting and refining complex at Trail, B.C., has always been about using technical innovation to get even the squeal out of the metallurgical pig to maximize profits. That’s even more true today as Trail marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company of Canada Limited (CM&S), later Cominco Ltd., and now Teck Cominco Metals Ltd., a subsidiary of Teck Cominco Limited.
Much has changed since 1906. Founding Father Walter Hull Aldridge would find little, in physical terms, he could recognize at Trail today. In his day, lead, copper and gold were the principal products, while zinc production (Trail’s mainstay today) did not exist.
“Trail Operations has changed enormously since the 1890s,” said Mike Agg, vice-president refining and metal sales for Teck Cominco in an interview with CMJ. “There are some areas like the outside of the lead refinery that Aldridge might recognize, but once he went inside he wouldn’t recognize the anode casting machines we use now, he wouldn’t see hundreds of guys pulling lead cathodes by hand, and the automated machines for casting lead pigs and jumbos [1-tonne lead ingots] would be strange to him. The whole operation has seen a huge amount of fundamental change since his day.”
Perhaps the most important thing that Aldridge would still recognize about Trail today is the culture of technical excellence and innovation that he and contemporaries such as Selwyn G. Blaylock established at CM&S early in its history. (Blaylock went on to become president of CM&S through the years of the Second World War.) One of the earliest examples was building the first commercial Betts process plant for the electrolytic refining of lead in 1902. That process, with modern automation and structures, is still in use today.
Aldridge left the company in 1910, but the innovative developments continued:
* electrolytic refining of zinc in 1916, to meet wartime demand for this metal;
* differential flotation, a process perfected in 1923, after seven years of development led by Ralph Diamond, which unlocked the vast lead and zinc wealth of the legendary Sullivan mine, and is now used routinely the world over;
* lead smelter slag fuming in 1930 to enhance metal recovery and improve environmental performance;
* synthetic fertilizer production in 1931 to capture sulphur dioxide emissions and pioneer a major new industry.
Those are just a few of the early innovations. There have been many more since, particularly in the last few decades.
Through the 1980s and 1990s the company poured over $1 billion into modernizing virtually every facet of the operation in a concerted effort to make it as productive as possible. For example, the zinc electrolytic and melting processes were redesigned and a new plant was built; the lead smelter blast furnaces were replaced with the Russian KIVCET flash smelting technology; a new process for the pressure leaching of zinc concentrates was introduced; and all the time the environmental aspects were at the forefront of the design work. The result is one of the world’s largest smelting and refining complexes with some of the industry’s best environmental and productivity statistics.
More than anything else, it has been the constant willingness to investigate and invest in new technologies that has helped Trail survive for 100 years, through two world wars, the Depression and wildly fluctuating metal markets. It’s interesting to note that there were 19 other British Columbia base metal smelters early last century, some of them quite substantial such as those at Greenwood and Anyox, that have not survived.
Two processes just entering production in 2006 bring the Trail story of innovation up to date. They both relate to society’s growing demand for the kind of high-tech equipment that Aldridge could not have begun to imagine.
Indium production expanding
The boom in flat screen televisions and computer monitors has increased the demand for and value of indium, as it’s a vital ingredient. In 2005 the price of indium averaged US$991/kg compared with US$625/kg in 2004. This has led to a serious effort to raise indium production at Trail, already one of the world’s leading indium producers.
The original indium refinery at Trail was built with a greater capacity than recent years’ production, but the challenge has been to debottleneck the upstream plants to get the indium to the refinery.
The concentrates coming into Trail contain small amounts of many metals, including tin, that are not commercially recoverable. However, indium and tin have an affinity that causes them to combine in the lead smelter’s continuous drossing plant, plugging it up and trapping the indium. A $10-million project to install a tin-removal circuit in the lead smelter is expected to free up the indium and enable Trail to reach its new production goal by 2007.
According to the company’s 2005 annual report, the goal is to raise indium production capacity to over 75,000 kg per year, although actual production will be restricted by the company’s ability to buy indium-bearing concentrates.
Electronic scrap a new business
How many computers, monitors and other electronic gadgets have you owned in your lifetime? Multiply that by the number of users, just in North America, and there’s a huge issue of scrap disposal that has not been addressed in the West until now.
Many metals such as lead, indium, copper and others are used in electronics, not to mention the main plastic casings. It’s hardly the stuff that makes a landfill healthy. When Teck Cominco heard in 2003 that the B.C. Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection was looking into legislation to encourage recycling, as Mike Agg said, “I think we’re fairly responsible people and we saw the makings of a win-win.
“Our number two slag fuming furnace had been rehabilitated to process our old slag stockpiles and it paid off very well,” said Agg, “but that project was finished and we were starting to look at other opportunities. The plant employed 16 people and had provided a good stream of revenue, so we didn’t want to shut it down.”
After much economic and technical investigation, the slag fuming furnace has been permitted by the B.C. Ministry of the Environment to operate for a year to process 3,000 tonnes of electronic scrap (“e-scrap”). The plant has the capacity to handle 20,000 tonnes per year, but the first year’s run will be monitored closely to ensure that the process is environmentally safe, before getting a permit for full production.
A slag fuming furnace operates at very high temperatures, so it’s able to completely destroy the plastics without the formation of dioxins and furans. The plant is currently in operation, and so far results have been good.
E-scrap is shipped in bulk from recycling depots to KC Recycling, located a few kilometres south of Trail, which breaks up old automotive batteries for lead smelter feed. There, the e-scrap is broken into 10-cm pieces for the furnace and trucked to the plant.
While a number of metals are recovered from the e-scrap, the amounts are insufficient to make the process economically viable yet. In British Columbia, a recycling fee, called an Extended Producer Responsibility Fee, is being developed to subsidize the treatment of this material, to make it an economical alternative to landfill disposal.
“Trail Operations is providing a recycling solution for western Canada and the Pacific Northwest U.S.,” said Agg. “There’s a lot of interest in this initiative and support from local, regional and provincial government.”
Zinc the main product
Zinc is where Trail makes most of its money today, with refined zinc accounting for 21% of Teck Cominco’s $4.4 billion of revenue in 2005. Normally the percentage would be higher, but last year Trail was hit with a 79-day strike o
f its entire operation that cut annual zinc production by 25%. With the zinc price at over US$1.00 at the time of writing, compared with an average 2005 price of US$0.63/lb, and with global zinc consumption outstripping supply and still climbing, Trail is in a good position to increase its profit in 2006.
Trail Operations has long been a market for miners that produce base metal concentrates, but Trail’s sources of supply are few in number these days. Inimical provincial government policies led to a lack of exploration activity in British Columbia during the 1990s, and consequently a lack of new mine development, as the established properties were depleted.
Teck Cominco itself is the largest zinc miner in the world. Much of the company’s 657,000 tonnes/year of zinc in concentrate feeds Trail’s 525,000-tonne/year appetite for zinc concentrates, which it typically converts into 295,000 tonnes of refined zinc. The company’s Red Dog mine in Alaska supplies 50% of Trail’s zinc concentrate requirements, and all the production of the Pend Oreille zinc mine in nearby Washington State is trucked to Trail.
“This leaves a gap that’s filled with material we buy from a variety of sources around the world including Peru and Bolivia,” explained Agg. “It’s a blend of concentrates containing the bulk of the indium, silver and gold we produce.”
Fortunately for any miners wanting to sell concentrate to Trail, there are few technical limitations, but they must meet the feed plan requirements of the smelter.
“We have a lot of flexibility in dealing with all sorts of impurities, so we have no specific limits on our concentrates,” said Agg. “The big question for us is, does it fit our feed plan or not?” The feed plan schedules in all the concentrates needed at Trail over the next five years.
Greatly improved labour productivity has been one of the major keys to success at Trail over the last two decades.
In 1982, as construction of the huge new zinc electrolytic and melting plant was nearing completion, Trail Operations had about 4,000 production, maintenance and staff employees. Today, after more than 20 years of attrition through voluntary severances, retirements and layoffs, it has only 1,421 employees and may go lower yet, according to Agg.
“It’s taken a heck of a lot of hard work and innovation. I don’t think any of us thought we could do this back in the 1980s. Every time we reduced the work force, we thought we couldn’t possibly go any lower, but never underestimate people’s capacity for innovation,” said Agg.
According to a Brook Hunt Report on world zinc refineries, Trail’s zinc operation now ranks second best in the world out of 69 in terms of conversion cost from concentrates to metals, according to Agg. “That’s the cost to process the concentrate, once it’s inside our doors, to the time it’s ready to leave as refined metal,” he said. In real money terms, the conversion cost is about US$0.13/lb.
“While the study rates us 46th out of 69 zinc refineries in the world for our labour costs in terms of cents per pound of zinc, it is our productivity that saves us,” Agg continued. “Our productivity had to improve to support our high labour rates here, compared to many other places where zinc plants operate,” said Agg. “Looking at it another way, in 1990 it took us over 11 worker-hours to produce a tonne of zinc, and in 2005 we were down to less than four hours.”
Because of downsizing, Trail has not had to be concerned about the skilled labour shortage plaguing much of business and industry these days. However, the situation is about to change as retirements start to take their toll of essential positions.
The average age for a Trail tradesman is now 50 years, and a little less for plant operators, according to Agg. “The vast majority of them have been with us since high school,” said Agg. “I think it speaks volumes to their experience that they have been able to bring down the frequency and severity of accidents while increasing productivity.
“This year, for the first time in many years we are hiring to replace tradespeople and I don’t think we are going to have a problem getting people,” he said. “We will hire 15 to 20 tradespeople a year over the next five years. Our advertising has already gone out and we’ve had some very good applicants. Our preference is for certified tradespeople, but we may also take some apprentices,” said Agg.
“We haven’t had an apprenticeship program since the early to mid-1990s, when restructuring of our operation led to the loss of apprentices, since they had the lowest seniority. We used to have one of the best programs in the province, and we will reinstate it on site, but on a much smaller scale,” said Agg. “I think it has always been the highlight of a tradesperson’s career to have an apprentice you can pass the knowledge on to.” He added: “I believe we will get to 1,300 people over the next five years, replacing many, but not all, of the tradespeople who retire.”
Legacy of innovation
Because of Trail’s wealth of proven metallurgical expertise and innovation, Teck Cominco’s Technical Research Centre was established there in 1957. It quickly became highly respected around the world and attracts many of the top scientists to its laboratories to continue the tradition of innovation and excellence fostered by Walter H. Aldridge 100 years ago.
It’s a legacy that Aldridge would be proud of.
The huge Trail complex was the birthplace of CM&S — later Cominco –100 years ago. It has grown far from its simple beginnings as a gold and copper smelter to become one of the world’s biggest, most productive and most environmentally safe refined metal producers.
Richard Fish retired from Teck Cominco’s Trail Operations in 2002 after 20 years in the public relations department. Previously he was editor of Canadian Mining Journal for seven years and a staff writer at The Northern Miner for three years.