At the quarter century mark, Voisey’s Bay’s legend continues to grow

At the quarter century mark, Voisey’s Bay’s legend continues to grow
A bird’s eye view of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine. Photo courtesy of Vale Canada

It’s been 25 years since the Voisey’s Bay discovery, and the massive nickel find has aged well indeed

IT WAS DIAMONDS, NOT NICKEL, that Chris Verbiski and Al Chislett were looking for on Sept. 13, 1993 when the two prospectors made one of the largest mineral discoveries in Canadian history.

Verbiski (then 25) and Chislett (45) were scouring the wilds of Labrador looking for diamonds. They had convinced Diamond Fields Resources to pay $372,000 to acquire their claims, considered the best diamond claims in Newfoundland and Labrador. The new company had even ponied up an additional $500,000 for an exploration program.

But their summer search had been a bust. Verbiski and Chislett had found nothing and were nearly broke. Then, while flying in a helicopter back to their exploration camp in the Labrador community of Nain, they spotted a large amount of rust-coloured rock on a hill above Voisey’s Bay. After returning to the spot and taking samples, it showed loads of nickel and copper. “Holy [expletive],” was Verbiski’s reaction to the discovery, according to a 2013 Forbes magazine article.

Drill core samples taken a year later proved Verbiski’s reaction was appropriate. It showed Voisey’s Bay contained one of the biggest deposits of nickel found anywhere in the world.

This year (2018) marks the 25th anniversary of the Verbiski and Chislett discovery. And what a discovery it has been. It eventually resulted in the construction of the Voisey’s Bay open pit mine that began production in 2005 and is owned and operated by Brazilian mining giant Vale. The mine employs 500 people, but that is only part of the economic impact Voisey’s Bay has had.

The mine’s nickel-copper-cobalt concentrate has been sent to its hydrometallurgical processing facility on the mainland at Long Harbour. The facility employs another 500 people and has been operating since 2014, providing value-added employment to the province instead of simply mining the ore and shipping it somewhere else to be processed. Then in June of 2018, Vale announced it was going ahead with a nearly US$2 billion underground expansion that will add at least 15 years of production to the mine and create approximately 400 more jobs. Vale expects underground mine production to start in April 2021.

A quarter of a century after it was discovered, Voisey’s Bay is the geological gift that keeps on giving. Verbiski and Chislett sold their interests in the mine (Chislett in 2005, Verbiski in 2010). Verbiski lives in Alberta now, but he does own two salmon fishing lodges in Labrador. Unfortunately, Chislett died in April of 2018 from cancer at the age of 69.

But if it weren’t for these two rock hounds, Voisey’s Bay may have never been found, and hundreds of people from Newfoundland and Labrador, and elsewhere, would not have jobs at the mine.

Glen House and Matt Stewart are two of those people. House is the chief mine geologist at Voisey’s Bay and was born and raised in the province. The mine gave House a chance to come back home after he moved to Manitoba in 2000 to work at a gold mine in Snow Lake before moving on to Thompson to work for Vale. “It was always in the back of my mind that I would eventually like to make my way to Voisey’s Bay,” House says. “Nine years later, that became a reality when Vale was looking for a chief mine geologist.”

House now leads a team of geologists and geological technicians in the exploration for new resources, upgrading of current resources and identifying and ensuring quality and consistent ore is sent to the concentrator. That work means House and his team have helped put Vale in a position to undertake the underground expansion project. Exploration and evaluation work of the Eastern Deeps and Reid Brook deposits―the ore bodies that will make up the two underground mines―were done by his team and previous geologists at Voisey’s Bay. “Now we will get to see what the Eastern Deeps and Reid Brook ore bodies actually look like and see how well they compare to our models and predictions,” he says.

Stewart is also intimately familiar with the underground expansion project. As the senior project geologist for the expansion since 2013, he’s responsible for supervising and developing the underground geology team, collecting and interpreting geological data so mine infrastructure is built safely, and ensuring the expansion has all its geological processes and systems built and commissioned for the operation of the mine. The Ottawa native moved to Voisey’s Bay from Sudbury, Ontario five years ago, where he was Vale’s chief geologist–projects. “I was familiar with the Voisey’s Bay deposit. It was a significant Canadian exploration success story,” Stewart says. “What attracted me to this role were the people involved with Voisey’s Bay and the chance to be part of two new underground mines from the beginning.”

Although they have been digging ore out of Voisey’s Bay for 13 years, Stewart says the expansion takes Vale and its employees into new territory after so many years of open pit mining. “Underground mining is new to Voisey’s Bay. This transition is a huge, but exciting, challenge,” he says. “It is really encouraging to see that the trainee program has started and that there are several existing employees who are excited to start their underground mining career right away.”

House also finds his work exciting. Drilling exploration holes and conducting geological surveys to find new resources at Voisey’s Bay brings the thrill of the unknown into his work. Will his team find new ore bodies that could extend the life of Voisey’s Bay beyond its underground phase? House certainly hopes so.

“Now that the project has the go ahead we do anticipate much more work to do from the exploration side to ensure that the Voisey’s Bay mine life extends well beyond the current life of mine plan,” House says. “The mine expansion project and the extension of operations beyond 2033 will provide great opportunities for employment as well as benefits to the local communities and businesses well into the future. There is a lot to take pride in here.”

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