Employees working at the new multi-billion-dollar nickel processing plant in Long Harbour were eager to show off their workplace Wednesday during a ceremony to celebrate the start of production at the massive new complex.

"It's a very good place to work," said Mike Furlong of Plate Cove West, near Bonavista. 

"This is my career now," added Dunville's Todd Murphy.

They are among the 370 people — nearly all are Newfoundlanders and Labradorians — now employed by Vale, the Brazilian owners of the $4.25US billion plant.

Known as plant processing technicians, or PPTs, they happily and skillfully explained the operations of the plant during a tour for the media.

They hail from all parts of the province, and have high hopes for long and satisfying careers at this plant, described by its owners as innovative and world-leading.

By the end of 2015, the full complement of 500 full-time employees will be working at the plant, which is now going through a very complex and time-consuming commissioning phase.

"These are young Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who were born and raised here and now have long-term, stable employment right here in our province," said Premier Paul Davis, one of many dignitaries on hand for the ceremony.

Delays and cost overruns

It will be another two or three years before the massive facility reaches full production, pumping out some 50,000 tonnes annually of processed nickel rounds, which are about twice the size of a Junior Mint, along with other metals such as cobalt and copper.

The plant uses a process called hydrometallurgical technology — also known as hydromet — to extract the nickel. The technology was developed, tested and proven in this province during operation of a test facility in nearby Argentia from 2005 to 2008.

Todd Murphy

Todd Murphy of Dunville is one of 370 people now working at the new Long Harbour Processing Plant. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The process is said to be a more efficient and sustainable way to process concentrate than the more traditional methods of smelting and refining.

The research and development in Argentia helped convince Vale that hydromet was viable. 

The company began construction of the commercial plant in 2009, at a projected cost of some $2.5US billion. It was initially scheduled to open two years ago.

At peak construction in 2013, there were 6,000 workers at the site.

In all, some 25 million "man hours" were expended during the construction phase.

Company officials admit there were "growing pains," but said that's to be expected when you are seeking to set a new world standard in nickel processing.

"We want to be the best processor," said Cory McPhee, Vale's vice-president of corporate affairs.

Plant to process ore from Voisey's Bay

Wednesday's ceremony, meanwhile, was a celebration of an important milestone for the plant: first production.

The first nickel rounds came off the production line in July, and only 70 or 80 tonnes have been produced to date, using a blend of high purity raw material from Indonesia and small quantities of ore from Vale's mine in Voisey's Bay, Labrador.

By the end of 2015, the plan is that 100 per cent of the material being processed in Long Harbour will be from Labrador.

"Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, from the ground to the finished product, will have their hands on this," said Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley, clutching a nickel round in his hand.

Wednesday's ceremony was staged in the massive electrowinning building.

'We see a bright and great future for Vale in Long Harbour for many years to come.' - Murilo Ferreira

In future years, this space will be crammed with white bags the size of washing machines, filled to the top with nickel rounds destined for international markets and use in the manufacturing and construction industries.

The mood during Wednesday's ceremony was very upbeat.

"We see a bright and great future for Vale in Long Harbour for many years to come," Murilo Ferreira, the CEO for Vale, told a group of politicians, government officials and plant workers.

A long road to production

The ceremony was many years in the making, beginning with the discovery of the Voisey's Bay nickel deposit more than two decades ago.

The Labrador mine opened in 2005, and now employs more than 400 workers.

Nickel rounds

Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley (left) and Premier Paul Davis display nickel rounds produced at the new Long Harbour Processing Plant. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Vale has been shipping raw material outside of the province for processing under an agreement with the government to eventually build a processing plant in the province.

This agreement has been amended several times, the latest coming in 2013 when Vale committed to an underground mine at the Voisey's Bay site, extending the life of the mine by 15 or 20 years and generating additional revenues and employment for the province.

Company and government officials stressed that these agreements are being fulfilled, though officials on both sides emphasized the complexity of the project.

"All of the commitments set out in the development agreement have been met fully," said Vale spokesman Bob Carter.

Corrections

  • A prior version of this article inaccurately identified Vale spokesperson Bob Carter as Bob Crocker.
    Nov 20, 2014 9:21 AM NT