September 2013

Arctic ambitions

Complex logistics built into Raglan’s development

By Vivian Danielson

The Raglan mine site in Nunavik, on the northern tip of Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula, produces 26,000 tonnes of nickel-in-concentrate per year, and its operators have plans to turn out even more by pushing output to 33,000 tonnes by 2014. No mine development is simple, but the particular challenges posed by the harsh and unpredictable environment will be an added test for Glencore Xstrata’s Raglan mine team.

After 15 years of operation, the site is not serviced by public infrastructure, and there are no plans for that to change. “Air and maritime transport are absolutely essential,” says Paul Gorodko, the mine’s manager of business services. “Everything must go by one or the other.”

And so logistics preoccupies everyone at the mine, whether they are in operations, maintenance or purchasing, says Kristan Straub, manager of mining operations and technical services. “There’s a tremendous amount of consolidation between teams.”

In Nunavik, yearly temperatures average -10 C and winters are long, dark and brutally cold. In the early days, development attempts were thwarted by ice built up around Raglan’s port at Deception Bay, which varies between 10 and 14 metres thick and stretches over roughly 1.5 kilometres. Polar ice-breaking technology, which pushed the traditional three-month marine shipping window to nine months or more, was the literal big break that led to a green light for the mine.

Ice-breaking is no less vital today, with a chartered multi-purpose ship, the MV Arctic, bringing in bulk cargo – including diesel and jet fuel, equipment and consumables – to Raglan. Nickel concentrates (with byproduct copper and cobalt) are trucked 90 kilometres from the mill site to the port for stockpiling before being shipped out for smelting and refining in Ontario, and Norway, respectively. There is a maritime transport restriction period from mid-March to mid-June to protect local seal populations.

Personnel, luggage, food and other light cargo are transported by two company-owned Boeing 737s, operated by an in-house aviation department. “We used to have just one aircraft, but it caused risk with availability,” Gorodko says. “Weather delays are frequent here, almost every week in winter.”

The second plane lets the company recover from delays quickly and provides greater flexibility, as it can be reconfigured to optimize the passenger-to-cargo ratio. Five flights per week are now offered from Rouyn-Noranda (35 per cent of employees are from the Abitibi region), Montreal, and most recently, Quebec City. The 150 employees from northern communities are flown in by charter service.

The 737s have added benefits over newer planes, as they are able to land on gravel airstrips. “A paved airstrip would be more difficult and costly to maintain, and gravel offers better traction for braking and for landing with crosswinds,” says Gorodko.

Growth spurt

Improved transportation flexibility has been necessary as Raglan has expanded from its original $600-million project, exploiting open pits and the Katinniq underground deposit that are served by a central mill. Four underground mines operate today and important investments have been recently made to construct the new Qakimajurq mine, extend the depth of Mine 2, and modernize infrastructure. All of this was done to add another 7,000 tonnes of nickel-in-concentrate to the current annual production.

Raglan’s infrastructure supporting the mines and milling complex has had to grow too. In addition to port facilities, the Donaldson airstrip and the power plant, Raglan is served by 150 kilometres of roads and bridges, a housing complex with a maximum capacity of 800 people, and its own telecommunications systems.

Maintenance is critical, Straub says, as some buildings are starting to age. “But first and foremost, the largest single issue we face is the permafrost environment,” he adds.

Permafrost at Raglan extends down to depths between 550 and 600 metres. Buildings are founded on steel piles and sit above ground on platforms to preserve permafrost stability. Saline water is used to drill in permafrost to prevent freezing of drilling equipment, which requires heated brine tanks on surface and dedicated water stopes underground. Because some saline residue permeates ore-bearing minerals and ends up in the milling circuit, maintenance programs were adapted to combat corrosion. “We’re continually investing in upgrading and refurbishing the mill,” says Straub.

Choreographed maintenance

Two maintenance outages are scheduled each year, in March and September, typically lasting between five to 10 days. The milling circuit, the largest drawer of power, is brought down during the process for preventive maintenance and to replace worn-out or stressed parts.

Advance planning for the outages is essential, Straub adds: “We often have to bring in specialized people and their tools, along with necessary parts and equipment.”

In addition to the mines and milling complex, teams must inspect and maintain the 6,500-foot gravel airstrip, the port facilities, and the roads, culverts and bridges.

“We also maintain the power plant,” Straub says. “We can take a generator offline as we have redundancy in the plant.”

Raglan’s three maintenance teams – mill, utilities and garage – work closely with an inventory management team to determine needs and to establish timelines.

In 2012, a logistics planning cell was established, consisting of three logistical planners and an aviation technician. The cell reports to a senior logistics coordinator, under the guidance of Gorodko. Michael J. Welch, vice-president of the Raglan mine, says the logistics cell was established in response to the project’s growing complexity, including the recently expanded flights to southern hubs: “We’re bringing in more materials and more people and felt we needed a more robust planning process.”

“We also align ourselves with capital projects and continued operations in order to get their requirements in advance, particularly for long-lead items,” Gorodko says. “There’s always a balance that must be achieved between material availability and controlling costs.”

The various teams at Raglan also work closely with the purchasing department located in southern Quebec, which liaises with contractors and suppliers and manages procurement, ground transportation, consolidation and storage of materials, in preparation for air and maritime transport.

The process was designed like a spider web, with the logistics cell in the middle, Welch says: “They’re responsible for gathering all the information from the various departments so they can schedule activities and maximize efficiencies.”

Cost efficiencies have improved as a result of the cell, Welch says. He adds that Raglan is one of the few large-scale Quebec projects that operate without government subsidies or infrastructure support. “We’re totally independent and assume all the risk. Everything must be well-run, or it fails,” he points out.

Logistics planning also involves looking ahead to determine what will be needed for future projects. Teams are already preparing for a wind power pilot project intended to help reduce reliance on diesel fuel, for instance.

“Our two biggest cost centers are power and labour,” Welch says. “Labour doesn’t go away, so we have to be lean and productive. But we are reviewing [alternative] energy sources, particularly green energy, and found we have the second best site in North America for wind power.”

The company’s goal is to reduce power costs (currently averaging 32 cents per kilowatt hour) that are more than five times higher than operations on Quebec’s power grid. If the wind pilot project is successful, Welch expects that lower cost power could be generated from a hybrid system where wind energy and storage are backed up by a combination of diesel and, potentially, liquefied natural gas.

In addition to mining and milling operations, Raglan is developing a series of deposits scattered over a strike length of 33 kilometres, within a geologically favourable land package covering about 70 kilometres east to west. Straub says 12 to 13 kilometres of underground mine development work is executed each year between the four active mines, which is no small feat as haulage drifts must be expanded so personnel and equipment can be brought in to develop each new lens of the deposits.

“We have multiple deposits like Sudbury, except theirs are larger and ours are smaller and more dispersed,” Straub says. “The closet analogy is trying to mine potatoes in a potato field.”

Tight timelines and lateral thinking

No amount of planning can completely neutralize the unpredictable Arctic.

In April 2013, bad weather caused air transport delays during the shipping blackout window. “We scheduled a triple-flight day to catch up, which required real detailed planning with airports and our aviation team,” Gorodko says. “This was successfully completed for the first time on April 30, allowing us to rapidly catch up with the delays.”

Gorodko says Raglan has a good record of meeting various challenges over the years through innovation and adaptation, but new challenges pop up almost every month. “I’ve been in this position for two years and am still getting new challenges regularly,” he concludes.

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