Mining News

Mining at the Extremes

Posted by Alana Wilson on 2/25/2014 3:58:05 PM

by Kenneth P. Green

It’s common to read about some of the perceived downsides to mining in many newspapers, but it’s less common to read positive stories about mining, and the people who do it. The Wall Street Journal has not just one, but two articles on mining in Canada’s far north.

In Mining for Gold at Minus 45 C Alistair MacDonald and John W. Miller discuss the conditions at the Agnico-Eagle Meadowbank gold mine, in Nunavut. The operating conditions are astonishing:

Gold miner Alain Belanger contends with 75 mile an hour winds, winter temperatures so cold they have cracked the steel on his 287-ton excavator and white-out blizzards that can halt mining for days.

This open-pit mine west of Canada's Hudson Bay has had such steep construction and operating costs—flying workers in and out, stocking a year's worth of food, employee turnover and battling snow drifts that can reach eight feet—that the project is unlikely to break even over the long haul, Agnico-Eagle Mines Ltd. executives now concede.

The article goes on to explain some of the challenges a company faces in working in such extreme environments:

"In the Arctic, if you make a mistake it is going to hit you very hard," said Jean Beliveau, the mine's general manager. In 2011, after a fire destroyed Meadowbank's kitchen, most of the mine's 550 employees had to be flown out until a replacement kitchen arrived from Phoenix. Total cost of the incident was $18 million.

For Agnico and other arctic miners, the biggest problem is the lack of ports, road and rail links. Agnico Eagle needed to build a $50 million, 110 kilometer highway. The road is the longest in Nunavut, which stretches over an area the size of Mexico but is home to only 32,000 people.

The mine has an eight-week window to bring a year's worth of food and other supplies before Hudson Bay freezes, including 200,000 eggs and 2,500 liters of ketchup. Anything that has been forgotten or needs replacing must be flown at a cost of $6 a kilogram.

A second article, also by MacDonald homes in on the people factor, profiling three people who work at the Meadowbank mine. In Faces of Workers at Arctic Mine, MacDonald profiles an engineer, a truck driver, and an HR professional.

The two articles do a good job at balancing the challenges and potential benefits to mining, and MacDonald didn’t cherry pick all 100% happy campers for his profiles. In his profile of the truck driver, he touches on the challenges to Nunavut’s Inuit communities:

For Billie-Jo Van Eindhoven, Nunavut is home and her role in mining it brings mixed feelings. The 27-year-old truck driver is one of more than 240 workers here recruited from local Inuit and like many others is ambivalent about the mine.

In an area of high unemployment, Ms. Van Eindhoven appreciates the opportunity the mine provides and enjoys the work. "It is a good paying job," she says. She ferries rock from the open pit to the mine's crusher or its dump, depending on the cargo's ore content.

But she worries the mine is accelerating the loss of local culture and language. Pointing to a mound of spoiled rock, she said some locals say the mine has frightened wildlife from the area. That includes the caribou herds that Inuit hunt, she says.

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