May 2008

Engineering Exchange

Creating jobs in Madagascar

By H. Weldon

Local labour preparing foundation for temporary building structure


Canadian engineering-construction firm SNC-Lavalin has recently taken their interest in the mining industry one step further, by becoming an equity stakeholder in the Ambatovy project in Madagascar, one of the largest nickel and cobalt deposits in the world.  The project is jointly owned by Sherritt (40 per cent), Sumitomo Corporation of Japan (27.5 per cent), Korea Resources (27.5 per cent) and SNC-Lavalin, who owns five per cent of the shares and is also the project’s EPCM contractor.

The enormity of the Ambatovy project and the lack of infrastructure in the area of the mine and processing facility are only two of the challenges Toronto SNC-Lavalin engineers are faced with.  “It’s a very remote area and we had to start from scratch,” explained Albert Sweetnam, SNC-Lavalin senior vice president, and Ambatovy project director. “Everything from power, water and sewage systems to access roads had to be built, and railway lines significantly upgraded.”

Construction, which began in May 2007, should be completed by 2010, followed by a three-year ramp up period. Design is 50 per cent completed and the mine life is estimated to be at least 27 years.

SNC-Lavalin has designed and is implementing a Local Resource Development Initiative (LRDI) program to train the Malagasy people who make up 96 per cent of the construction workforce at this phase of the project.  Approximately 2,300 local workers have already undergone basic skills training, with the aim of training upwards of 5,000 in total. Many of these workers will go on to additional training for future operations.

Another goal of the LRDI program is to maximize the participation of local suppliers. “Local enterprises are engaged whenever possible and an array of cottage industries has been created to help fulfill the needs of the mine and the plant,” Sweetnam explained. For example, local companies are involved in the execution of the earthworks, concrete, fencing, erosion control and supply of some of the materials. Even the personal protective gear worn on site and the bamboo mats used in erosion control are now being made in Madagascar. “The Malagasy people are quick to learn and are incredibly enthusiastic,” observed John Lindsay, vice president operations and technology, SNC-Lavalin.

Getting an enormous project like Ambatovy up and running in Madagascar is not without challenges. According to a July 3, 2007, article in the International Herald Tribune, Madagascar is the ninth poorest nation in the world.  All supplies and equipment, including some of the food to feed the workers, have to be imported.  Everything is brought in by ship, which places expanding the existing port to accommodate the ships high on the list of priorities.

The processing plant will be located near the port, but the mine itself is over 220 kilometres away.  A pipeline 220 kilometres long will be constructed to transport the slurry to the processing plant, which will use a hydrometallurgical pressure acid leach and sulphide precipitation process, followed by solvent extraction and hydrogen reduction, to recover the nickel and cobalt.

Five of the largest autoclaves in the world, destined for the Ambatovy project, are presently under construction in Belgium and China. The autoclaves, weighing 900 tons each, will be shipped in one piece on special cargo ships that will be modified to accommodate these colossal devices.

“Water management has been given special consideration at both the mine and the plant,” Lindsay stated. Average rainfall at the mine site is 1,700 millimetres per year and 3,340 millimetres per year at the plant site. With that kind of water volume, SNC-Lavalin has had to act quickly. “Special attention was given to runoff and drainage trenches, silt fencing, settling ponds, the collection of water and, of course, how it will be treated and released,” explained Lindsay.

Dale Clarke, vice president and general manager of SNC-Lavalin’s Toronto office, acknowledged the importance of environmental responsibility and sustainability in the development of mining projects, pointing out that all aspects of the mine are to be developed in accordance with World Bank and other recognized standards and best practices. Clarke is extremely supportive of today’s strict environmental and social standards.

“Think of the artisanal mining efforts currently occurring in other areas of the world,” he explained. “Those artisanal activities are creating significant environmental impacts and dangerous working conditions for the local workers. If responsible mining companies were allowed to develop their proposed mines in these areas, as they currently plan to, they would clean up the sites and provide safer and healthier working conditions for the local people. The Ambatovy project in Madagascar is an excellent example of a responsible company developing a project in a sustainable manner.”

SNC-Lavalin and the other project stakeholders are helping to ensure that the Ambatovy project will leave a legacy of industry growth, sustainability and a clean environment in Madagascar.

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