Nfld. & Labrador

Voisey's Bay underground development hits 10% completion

With more than 400 people on site, it's a bustling place with lots of work happening.

Workers staying on floating hotel while work on new living quarters underway

The Voisey's Bay mine and concentrator is south of Nain, Labrador. (Vale)

The quest to mine nickel from beneath the ground at Voisey's Bay in Labrador is picking up steam with more than 430 workers on site.

Joao Zanon, the project director for Vale, said the team ran into challenges in the early stages of the project during the harsh northern Labrador winter.

Once the snow melted and summer arrived, the project ramped up. A little over 10 per cent of the underground development is now complete, with a goal to be operational in the first half of 2020.

"We've picked up the development quite a lot in the past months and the speed will continue to increase as we … are able to mobilize more people to work underground," Zanon said.

Vale's Joao Zanon says the mine wouldn't be able to survive without contributions from Indigenous employees. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

A nickel deposit was discovered at Voisey's Bay, just south of Nain, in 1993. It wasn't until 2005 that surface mining got underway.

Last year, Premier Dwight Ball announced the mine would be going underground to extend its life.

CBC News reported soon after that Vale helped finance the $1.7-billion expansion by selling future production of cobalt, which will be a byproduct of the mine and a metal used for electric-vehicle batteries.

Zanon said there's no guarantee on how long the mine will last, but said the potential is huge now that operations have moved below ground.

"Once you are down there it opens a whole new set of opportunities because it's a lot easier to find new ore deposits. The chance that Voisey's Bay will be there for decades to come is real."

Expansion includes new living quarters

Crews are constructing three tunnels beneath the earth. One will be two kilometres long, while the others will be three kilometres. All three tunnels are currently about 800 metres each, five metres wide by five metres high.

Once operations begin, the mine extension will employ about 250 people. 

Vale is a Brazilian mining giant and operates mines across Canada, including Voisey's Bay.

While many people are working below ground right now, there are also crews working above ground to build a new camp with 200 beds.

Until that is finished, 100 Vale workers are staying on a floating hotel in the bay.

"The 'flotel' was an idea we had when we were trying to assess what was the best way to deal with the increase in workforce while we were still building the new dormitories," Zanon said.

The company considered several different options for accommodating workers, including flying them in and out of the work site each day. Most of the options created more risk than benefit, so they opted for a floating residence instead.

It will stay until the end of October, when the camp is expected to be finished.

These are samples of nickel, copper and cobalt rounds from Voisey's Bay, Labrador. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Vale is working with the Labrador Aboriginal Training Partnership to find a mix of experienced and brand new workers for the mine extension. Part of their effort is to find Newfoundland and Labradorians working in mines around the world and persuade them to come home.

The company is sending new workers to its mine in Sudbury for a four-week training program before coming to Voisey's Bay.

The two-kilometre tunnel is expected to be complete by next year, while the other two are on track to be finished by 2022.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that iron ore is mined at Voisey's Bay. In fact, nickel is mined at Voisey's Bay.
    Aug 28, 2019 4:46 PM NT

With files from Labrador Morning

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