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Fire shuts down Vale smelter

No injuries, Land says
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Thompson Citizen file photo

In May 2008, an $8-million fire in the main conveyor belt at No. 1 crusher in the Thompson Mill damaged the mill and T-1 mine. Smoke forced an evacuation of 70 underground employees and a three-day shutdown at the T-1 and T-3 mines in September 2010, while a small fire in Birchtree mine last May on the 2700 Level ramp resulted in two workers who were in the vicinity of the fire being taken to hospital as a precautionary measure and released later the same day. At the time of the fire, there were 23 employees working underground in Birchtree – some employees of Vale and some of Macintyre & Associates.

A March 15 fire in Vale Manitoba Operations after an electrode on the Number 2 furnace super heated and caused the contact pads and isolation wood to catch fire has shut the surface facility down until “we can bring the furnace safely back online,” Ryan Land, manager of corporate affairs in Thompson, said in a March 16 e-mail in response to a query from the Thompson Citizen two hours earlier.

There were no injuries or “risk to the public or the environment,” Land said.

“Our fire crew quickly extinguished the fire and managed the scene. There were no injuries and although there may have been heavier-than-usual discharge visible from the smelter, there was no risk to the public or the environment. Regular operations in the smelter have ceased until we can bring the furnace safely back online. Three floors of the smelter were affected and damage was restricted to the specific electrode. We expect to be operating at full capacity within a short time,” he said.

“As always, our first priority is SafeProduction and we will continue to manage risk to as low as reasonable achievable in our pursuit of zero harm to our people, our community, to the environment, and to our business, said Land. “Our employees in the smelter and on our fire crew are to be commended for their swift, decisive and safe action."

An $8-million May 20, 2008 fire in the main conveyor belt at No. 1 crusher in the Thompson Mill damaged the mill and T-1 mine and forced more than 300 workers from the job temporarily, damaging structural steel, crane supports and rails, along with the roof and No. 1 crusher leg. The baghouse, tyrock screen and tyrock chute were destroyed in the fire. Parts of the woodpicking conveyor were damaged along with parts of the cone crusher. The most extensive damage was to steel beam supports for the roof, walls and crane rail, then mill superintendent Shawn Healey said: “These steel girders are 12 inches thick. They were bent and their integrity compromised, due to the extreme heat.”

During the 2008 fire, Vale flooded underground tunnels at T1, with its headframe attached to the mill, with “stench gas” to alert miners of a hazard and have them gather in safehouses at different levels of the mine. Stench gas is made up of two substances – the first, formally known as ethyl mercaptan or ethanethiol, is a colourless organic liquid, which gives off a strong odour. The ethyl mercaptan is then added to an odourless gas, allowing the combined substance to quickly permeate throughout the area in which it is released. It is frequently used in mines, as it was in this case, as an effective and reliable method of alerting workers to a problem.

As the power was shut off, they could not be brought to the surface in a cage at T1. Eventually, when supervisors determined it was safe, the T1 miners were give the green light to begin the long underground walk through tunnels to T3 to surface there where the power was on.

On Sept. 20, 2010, there was an evacuation of 70 underground employees at the T-1 and T-3 mines due to smoke. Normal work didn’t resume until the night shift three days later while crews worked to contain, isolate and eliminate the smoke from a bulk production block that had been blasted three weeks earlier. It happened on open unsupported ground, which meant it was unsafe for people to enter. Due to the smoke, atmospheric conditions were not at safe levels and required the use of facemasks.

Based on the colour of the smoke and other factors, Vale concluded it was likely an old timber structure within old mine workings that was smoldering and not an outright fire.

Once the smoke was detected, stench gas was released into the compressed air and ventilation system of the two mines as per Vale procedures. The stench quickly spread through the mines, alerting all employees, as the release of the gas is the signal for employees to immediately seal themselves in designated safe areas and report by phone to contacts on the surface – a process which allowed Vale to verify that all employees were safe and accounted for.

At that point, mine rescue teams were called in, ensured that the escape routes were safe, and brought the employees to the surface. The reason for evacuating both mines was that they are connected underground on several levels. After the employees were all safe on the surface, attention turned to the issue of the smoke itself.

To combat the smoke, two small holes – each approximately 4.5 inches in diameter – were drilled approximately 175 feet above the smoky area. Water was pumped through one hole to douse the heat, while the other was filled with sand fill, which would smolder the smoke – and any potential fire – by choking off any oxygen that could serve as a fuel source.

Mine rescue teams were also called into Birchtree mine last May 30 after a small fire on the 2700 Level ramp. The fire was caused by the failure of a hydraulic hose on a piece of underground equipment known as a load-haul-dump vehicle, or more commonly known as a scooptram. Two workers who were in the vicinity of the fire were taken to hospital as a precautionary measure and released later the same day. At the time of the fire, there were 23 employees working underground in Birchtree – some employees of Vale and some of Macintyre & Associates. Stench gas was released to notify the workers of the situation, and they sealed themselves into underground refuge stations until the fire was extinguished.

Vale Manitoba Operations general manager Lovro Paulic told the Thompson Chamber of Commerce Feb. 29, “Our goal this year is to produce 108 million pounds of nickel. We've already begun the process of converting to a single furnace operation. The plan was to produce 108 million pounds (of nickel) using two furnaces and five converters, but we're going to attempt to do it using one furnace and two converters.”

The Brazilian mining giant announced on Nov. 17, 2010 it would shut down its smelter and refinery surface operations here in 2015.

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