A new era begins; how long will it last?

With smelting and refining operations at Vale’s Manitoba Operations shut down never to return, the mining industry in Thompson has entered a new era, one in which the only processing to be done will consist of milling and which will see Thompson act as a feeder operation for smelters and refineries in Sudbury, Ontario, and Voisey’s Bay in Newfoundland and Labrador. This will mark the first time since construction was completed nearly 60 years ago that Vale (and previously Inco) operations will not be fully integrated, taking nickel from the ore extracted underground to a finished product, instead just to a nickel concentrate that is shipped out from a new load-out facility that was recently completed.A new era has also begun in a different way with the phasing out of Mark Scott’s position as vice-president of Manitoba Operations, with July 20 having been his last day on the job. Once again, for the first time since mining and associated operations began in Thompson in the late 1950s to early 1960s, they will not be overseen by a local head of operations but managed as a satellite mine of Vale’s nickel operations in Sudbury, with Alistair Ross in charge of all of the company’s Canadian mining operations.

In some ways, one could argue that precisely how reporting relationships are organized within Vale is not hugely significant and that, regardless of what the titles are and who is under whom, there will still be someone at the top of the company’s heap in Thompson who will report to higher-ups elsewhere, just as Mark Scott did, and Lovro Paulic before him. In that respect, things may not be that much different under the new organizational structure. Symbolically however, not having a local manager could be a precursor to making tougher decisions about Thompson’s mining operations without the hindrance of being aware of those affected as people, rather than just numbers on the company’s payroll. Also, what does it say when the person who has been in charge of making some of the biggest changes in the history of mining operations in Thompson, including significant layoffs and buyouts, is rewarded for his services in making these unpleasant changes by being cut loose and out of a job himself? It can’t be a pleasant feeling for those in lesser roles.

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Also of some concern for local Vale employees, particularly those employed underground, was North Atlantic mining operations director Ricus Grimbeek’s description of Scott having overseen the closure of the Birchtree Mine, which the company technically placed on care and maintenance last October, meaning that, in theory at least, if nickel prices rise enough, mining operations could be resumed in fairly short order. That it might never open again was likely always on Vale employees’ minds, but having the top person in the company’s North Atlantic mining operations all but come out and say so probably makes that scenario seem like more of a probability than a possibility.

Thompson has seen a lot of changes and ups and downs since the discovery of the ore body on which the community is based more than six decades ago. There have been high times and low times, at least one lengthy strike, rises and falls in the local population and the city has weathered it all. On the other hand, the original expected date by which the mines were expected to have reached the end of their life has already passed and the company that owns them, for whom Canadian nickel mining operations are but a very small slice of their overall operations, decided nearly eight years ago now that it wasn’t worth the money to upgrade their smelting and refining operations to meet newer and more stringent environmental regulations. Now as the whittling down of Manitoba Operations has begun in earnest, it makes it that much easier to shut down all the rest in the future. Vale has said that it hopes that there is a long future of mining and milling ahead for Thompson. But the bottom line for Vale, and any other company, is profitability and if the day comes that Thompson’s mines struggle to achieve that threshold, this could one day be looked at as the beginning of the end of Thompson as a nickel mining town and perhaps a much less prosperous future.

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