By Ian Ross
The continued lifespan of Inco's Creighton Mine mirrors the longevity of the nickel giant's existence in Sudbury.
After a multimillion-dollar expansion of the 100-year-old mine that dropped activity down to the 7,660-foot level, the first ore from the extension was delivered right on schedule last July. It is the first phase in a $190-million project that will extend the mine’s life to 2013 and beyond. Tapping into long-hidden resources close to their existing Sudbury operations with the latest in leading edge technological advances is part of Inco's plan to pursue low-risk and profitable ventures.
Among the world's leading producers of nickel, supplying about 24 per cent of the world's demand, Inco is closely watching its dollars and finding ways to trim costs wherever possible in supplies, services, energy, labour and taxation. This is part of a business strategy to keep the company in the bottom quartile of low-cost producers.
Because of the routinely fluctuating nature of mineral prices, it is a practice they have followed for the past decade, says Scott McDonald, Inco's Ontario general manager.
With major capital projects on the books for Voisey's Bay, Nfld., at their Goro development in New Caledonia and other operations at their Indonesian subsidiary, there will be limits on their access to money for the next few years, so maintaining and sustaining what they already have in Northern Ontario is key.
"That means we'll have to be very diligent and very prudent in our spending here," says McDonald. "We'll have to sustain our plays and the integrity of our assets here."
It also means delving into development projects, not so much to expand capacity in Sudbury, as to maintain current levels, such as going deeper at Garson Mine and bringing new deposits at the Totten and Kelly Lake properties into production.
Locally, Inco's aggressive exploration around existing mines in the Sudbury basin in the last few years is paying off.
The Totten and Kelly Lake ore bodies are thought to contain reserves that are richer than those currently mined in Sudbury. Inco walked away from the Totten mine in 1970, but new technology and drilling have produced “real encouraging” results there, says McDonald.
The Totten property, close to the Crean Hill mine, is estimated to hold an 8.4-million tonne high-grade deposit of nickel, copper and some platinum group metals. The Kelly Lake project, which has been drilled for several years under the lake, is located close to Inco's Copper Cliff South Mine.
"We're still in the early days of assessing that property, but it looks encouraging as well,' says McDonald. Both projects will eventually be brought into low-cost production by using existing infrastructure from neighbouring mines.
Provided mineral prices and the economics of mining remain constant in the long term, McDonald maintains there is no reason Inco cannot maintain their 20-year plan.
"Price, cost, licence to operate from an environmental perspective, the social acceptance of our industry - they all come into play."
Much of Inco's success can be attributed to its position as a world leader in mining automation. Telemining has gone from the experimental to the practical stage, particularly at the Creighton and Stobie mines.
McDonald says Inco is encouraged by the progress made in haulage systems such as trucks and scoop trams which are remotely controlled from surface facilities. Remote control drilling also represents a "breakthrough" in being able to run multiple drills, with improved guidance and greater accuracy, from a single operator at their Copper Cliff automation centre.
Another component of their corporate strategy is developing their value-added, specialty products that are sold as premium commodities for high-growth markets.