'I like to use the term ‘multi-generational' to describe the project.'

Mary River: Baffin's mountain of opportunity

By Arthur Johnson

For all of about two minutes, the sun was shining as Gordon McCreary's aircraft approached his pride and joy – a nascent iron mine being carved from the frozen rock on northern Baffin Island about 160 km south of Pond Inlet.

As the sun receded, McCreary could see the landing lights on the airfield, and his heart swelled. "It was a great moment for me to see those lights come up on the horizon," McCreary says, recalling his visit Jan. 28 to the work camp built by Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. at Mary River.

To date, Baffinland has spent $150 million at the site. Hundreds of millions more will be spent before the mine goes into production in 2014, and McCreary, Baffinland's chairman and CEO, is eager to observe and report even the most minute indication of progress.

Superlatives are as common in the mining business as pickup trucks and cheatin' women in country music. But even in an industry that prides itself on its outsized accomplishments, the Mary River mine is shaping up to be a huge and exotic beast.

McCreary can say, with no fear of contradiction, that Mary River will be the world's most northernly iron mine.

To ship ore to the coast, where it will be loaded on ships bound for steel mills in Europe, the mine will have its own railway, with trains running 145 km from the mine site to port facilities on the coast. It will, of course, be the world's most northerly railway.

The ore itself is enough to inspire even more superlatives. Canada's four existing iron mines in Labrador and Quebec produce ore with an iron content of about 30 per cent. The iron content of ore from Minnesota mines is about 20 per cent. Samples to date show the Mary River ore body yields and average grade of 66.8 per cent iron.

That's so high the company will not have to do much in the way of processing. The ore will simply be extracted, crushed into pellet-sized pieces and shipped to European mills.

In fact, Baffinlands is now preparing for its all-important next step – extracting a bulk sample of 250,000 tons of ore, which will be sent to four or five mills in August and September. The mills will make steel with it, comparing the quality to steel made from other sources.

This testing process amounts to a pre-marketing exercise. Assuming the ore produces acceptable steel, Baffinland can probably count on some huge contracts before the mine actually goes into production.

But just getting the bulk samples over to Europe is an involved and costly process. McCreary says the ore will be sent over in 50,000-ton lots, each in the hold of a ship "too large to come up the St. Lawrence Seaway."

Baffinland already has a workforce of 178 people – about 50 at the port facility at Milne Inlet that will be used to ship the bulk sample and the rest at the Mary River mine site. By the summer, the workforce will swell to more than 300, and grow from there as the mine is developed.

Many of the employees come from Nunavut communities, including Iqaluit, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Igloolik and Hall Beach. McCreary, who is expansive in describing the physical aspects of the mine, becomes almost lyrical and visionary when he explains the company‘s future hiring plans.

"I like to use the term ‘multi-generational' to describe the project," he says. "What we'll have to do in terms of recruitment is not just go into the high schools, but into the primary schools as well."

In other words, he says, the lifespan of the mine (now estimated to be at least 25 years) will be such that the company will be acquainting kids as young as nine or 10 with the notion that one day they could earn their living working for Baffinland.

The parents, or perhaps even the grandparents, of some of these future employees are already adjusting to life as 21st-century commuters. Baffinland does not intend to build a permanent town at Mary River, but instead, will shuttle workers to the site from their communities on a two-week fly-in and fly-out schedule.

Even at this early stage, the mine project is consuming money, materials and manpower at a voracious rate. During his visit to the site in January, McCreary drove along a 100-kilometre road built by the company from Mary River to Milne Inlet.

The journey took two hours and 15 minutes along the winter road, which will be upgraded with culverts and other improvements so that it can be used in all seasons. "Can you imagine a road 100 kilometres long anywhere in Nunavut?" McCreary marvels.

There are still numerous regulatory and corporate hurdles to clear before the mine actually produces a dollar in revenue.

But as work proceeds at the site, McCreary and his head office team are blasting their way through what seems at times to be a granite mountain of bureaucracy. Last week the company signed a lease with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association covering a surface area of about 10,567 hectares on Baffin Island.

The lease allows Baffinland to explore for minerals, to do engineering geotechnical and environmental studies for the mine project, to engage in pre-construction staging activities and to complete the bulk sampling program.

Next week, Baffinland will announce the results of a wide-ranging feasibility study for the entire project, which should help in raising the huge additional sums needed to get the mine into production.

And within the next few weeks, the company will announce updated estimates of potential reserves. Earlier estimates have pegged reserves at a minimum of 130 million tons of ore.

But McCreary is completely undaunted by the bureaucratic or logistical challenges in developing an enormous iron mine further north than any similar project has ever been attempted anywhere on earth.

"This project," he declares, "has the potential to deliver enormous benefits for Nunavut, and dare I say it, for the entire nation of Canada."

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