Dec '11/Jan '12

Lithium mine is recharged

A long-shuttered hard rock lithium mine in western Quebec has become economical again, thanks to growing battery demand

By E. Moore

When the Quebec Lithium Mine in Val-d’Or shut down in 1965 after 10 years of operation, its owners believed they would be back to restore it within months. They were wrong. The U.S. government had kept the lithium trade busy by using the metal in its defense industry research, but after reductions in lithium purchases by the United States, the mine’s operating margin disappeared.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, researchers in Montreal and Ottawa studied process improvements to lower the costs of extracting lithium, but to little effect. A new company bought the Quebec property in the 1980s, but ultimately gave up the mine to rehabilitation when prices stayed low and its margins failed to improve. Quebec’s story is not unique; of all the lithium producers that opened up shop in North America, only one American company is still producing.

But in the last decade, lithium batteries have gradually begun to see widespread use. The new demand for portable electronics has roughly doubled the price of lithium and with that, the promise of profitable mine production has been renewed.

In 2008, the Quebec Lithium project was acquired by Canada Lithium Corp., which plans to restart the operation for a substantial reward. “The fact that there’s been a mine before gives us a huge amount of information,” says Charles Taschereau, chief operating officer of Canada Lithium. The company had 400 historical drill holes and the records of previous processing developments to work with.

Construction superintendent Marco Plourde at the
Canada Lithium Corp.’s Quebec lithium project

After further drilling and metallurgical testing, recent figures reported by AMC Mining Consultants in June 2011 show Proven and Probable Reserves of

 17.1 million tonnes of spodumene ore at 0.94 per cent lithium, and an updated resource estimate, released in December, put the Measured and Indicated Resources at 33.2 million tonnes. The ore veins are close to the surface, requiring very little pre-stripping and allowing an open-pit plan for the duration of the currently planned 15-year mine life.

Although the properties’ existing documentation has been helpful, the infrastructure of the old mine is gone: grass now grows where structures used to sit. “There’s nothing left for the new mine,” says Taschereau. Even the rail spur had been removed and will now need to be rebuilt.

By October, Canada Lithium had assembled about two-thirds of its initial US$207 million capital costs. It expects to be in production by late 2012, with first sales and full production in 2013. Site preparation was completed last September and construction on facility buildings is underway. In April 2012, delivery of the major process equipment will begin, and the following month, the main mining fleet will be on site. Contracts for the crushing and flotation circuits, ball mills, kiln and high-voltage switch gear have all been awarded.

Good neighbours

The advantages of re-establishing a new mine on an old mine go beyond drill cores and documentation. Canada Lithium can see the legacy of past tailings management and reclamation work, and it appears benign. “What’s going into the tailings dam is 99 per cent silica,” explains Taschereau. “There are no sulphides in the ore and the waste is dark granite, a very inert rock. The reagents are consumed at the processing stage. The old tailings impoundments were not built to current standards, but you can see that all around, there are fish in the water and no damage to the environment. And our tailings will be much safer than that.”

Canada Lithium worked to avoid surprises in its development of the project. “There are people living in villages nearby and there’s a ski hill just six or seven kilometres away,” says Taschereau. “We started to have meetings with those people two years ago and we integrated their comments into the design. We want to make sure that everybody feels that they’re better off with a mine in the area than without.”

For example, the original locations for the waste piles and processing plant were altered to alleviate noise concerns. The company also helped the local hotel secure a bank loan to build new cottages by paying into the construction effort and committing to use those cottages to house out-of-town staff. “It’s a win-win situation,” says Taschereau. “We help them with a project, and for us, it’s very nice to tell our people that they’ll be living near a ski hill.”

The mine sits 60 kilometres north of Val-d’Or, an area with a long mining history, good infrastructure and plenty of available skilled labour – most of the mine employees will live nearby. Taschereau points out that instead of going with one large contractor for the preparation work currently underway, the company is using a collection of local contractors. “We have over 12 companies that are working on site right now, most of them with one or two pieces of equipment,” he says. “The primary reason was to make sure that economic activity stays as local as possible but I think, overall, it probably also helps us to get better rates and to better control the job.”

The area’s relative proximity to Montréal – a five-hour drive away – helps with the larger equipment. “A lot of Metso’s assembly is done here in Montréal,” says Taschereau. “So it’s easy for us to keep contact and work with the engineers.”

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