If you're outside of Sudbury, you probably haven't heard much about Inco's Copper Cliff Refinery. It's not that sexy and certainly at a 140 jobs doesn't rank on the misery scale as we watch the crumbling of forestry employment across the North.
It struck a chord in Sudbury. The chord is that even the most ambivalent of politicians and citizens understand that to lose a value-add business attached to the resource sector in a Northern Ontario community is a disaster. It is painful and impossible to replace those jobs.
Sudbury City Council, in a rare show of unity, voted unanimously to oppose the closure and approach the Ontario government for some muscle. Of course nothing will happen. Rick Bartolucci within seconds said there was nothing he could or would do.
The truth is Mark Cutifani, the current president of Inco's Sudbury operations, is the first executive with the guts to do anything at all about the refinery. I mean, in a year when they are going to make a billion or so, it is not very savvy public relations to start closing down business units. It could be a very expensive closure indeed. Negotiations with the Steelworkers are but a year away.
The Refinery is being closed because of an intransigent union, and historically weak management at Inco.
There has been no investment in the refinery for many years because serious investment would have meant serious layoffs. The union members wouldn't stand for it and the company wasn't up for the fight. The result: a hopelessly inefficient refinery.
All of which led some of us the other day to consider making an offer for the refinery rather than sit around and bitch about it being closed.
Far fetched, of course, but sometimes if you start at far-fetched you can get to fetch.
Besides, until you stand in the other guy's shoes you don't really know squat.
There is a refinery of similar size at Kidd Creek in Timmins. It operates at one-third the employment level and has done so for years, and not surprisingly at a unit cost level half that of Inco's.
At Noranda in Quebec, where Inco is proposing to move its business, the cost base is extraordinarily low because their refinery is not operating at capacity. Therefore, the incremental cost of refining Inco's product is even lower than what it would be if you built a brand new refinery with the best technology in the world, and threw in some government money.
These are the general observations of people who ought to know and otherwise would be delighted to be a part of a rescue plan.
Down the road, not five kilometres from the Copper Cliff refinery, is a little company called Ionic Engineering, a recent winner of a Northern Ontario Business Award. Ionic is currently manufacturing "state-of-the-art" equipment for Copper Refineries around the world. This month it is shipping to South Korea.
This company would simply not exist in its present form if it were not for the Copper Cliff Refinery and some of the work Ionic did along the way to learn the business.
It simply doesn't get more frustrating than this.
We could build the bloody refinery in our own backyard if we wanted to!!
Here is what we get instead of jobs and economic growth. Inco, not incorrectly, says it doesn't want to fix a completely inefficient refinery with cheaper options available elsewhere which begs the question of how and why they created this dinosaur in the first place. The union says, not without sympathy, that the company is making billions from resources in the Sudbury area, and why can't they take a hundred million or so and build what they should have built 10 years ago, which doesn't account for their own role in resisting change. The city council votes unanimously to sanction Inco and runs to the province for help with no deeper thinking than a plan to stamp their feet, and the province through its Sudbury MP, THE MINISTER OF Northern Development and Mines, says "My goodness, why would you ever call me?"
It is pathetic and oh so Northern Ontario. Everyone gets to be upset and no one is accountable for giving up a birthright.
Sometimes you just get what you deserve.
Michael Atkins is the president of Northern Ontario Business. He can be reached email@example.com.