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Consulting sector buzzing

December 1, 2011
by Norm Tollinsky
In: News with 0 Comments

Euro zone debt, American stagnation and a slowdown in China paint a picture of economic doom and gloom, but Northern Ontario’s mining engineering consulting firms have never been busier. Sudbury and North Bay staff with Hatch, Stantec, Wardrop, AMEC and Knight-Piésoldare busy working on projects across Canada and around the world, and are bullish about the next few years. The engineering consulting sector in northeastern Ontario constitutes an important sub-section of the region’s mining cluster, employing upwards of 600 engineers, scientists, technicians and administrative staff.This wasn’t always the case.  Wardrop, now part of Pasadena, California-based Tetra Tech, started out with a three-man operation in 2001 and today has 50 employees at its Sudbury office. Stantec, formerly McIntosh Engineering, had one or two people in Sudbury in 2008 and now has 92, with approximately 100 more in North Bay.

Hatch has the largest presence in the northeast with more than 230 employees in Sudbury, Golder Associates has 110, AMEC has grown from an office of two in 1999 to 40 today and Knight-Piésold in North Bay has 40. Most consulting firms also report that they could hire more staff, but are having trouble recruiting them.

Hatch

The Hatch office in Sudbury serves as a centre of mining excellence for all of North America, but also plays a lead role on projects in Europe, Russia and South America, said Jim Gallagher, director of mining for North America.

According to Gallagher, the number of employees at Hatch’s Sudbury office has doubled in just over a year.

“We have a very strong team in Sudbury and we treat it as a centre of mining excellence. We have full capabilities here. We can do all aspects of a study, from ventilation to computer simulation for mining productivity and performance. We do shafts and hoists, all the infrastructure underground, geological block modeling…we can do all of that, including full detail engineering and project execution.”

Hatch’s Sudbury office has satellite groups in Saskatoon, Scottsdale and Mississauga, and provides support to the firm’s St. Petersburg office in Russia.

“Originally, our office in Sudbury was here to serve Falconbridge and Inco. We still do that, but now we’re also working on projects globally and bringing that work back to Sudbury,” said Gallagher.

Work underway includes Xstrata Zinc’s Pallas Green project in Ireland, Kinross Gold’s Fruta del Norte project in Ecuador, Kennecott’s Eagle Minerals nickel project in Michigan and Vale’s Clarabelle Mill upgrade in Sudbury. The office has also worked on a number of Kinross projects in Russia and is close to winning its first job in China.

Stantec

Prior to being acquired by Stantec, McIntosh Engineering was a niche consulting firm specializing in underground mining with offices in North Bay and Tempe, Arizona. In 2008, the firm won a big contract with Falconbridge for all of the underground engineering, including the headframe and hoist room for the Nickel Rim Mine.

“That’s what sparked our growth in Sudbury,” said Mike Mayhew, Stantec’s director of global mining services.

Today, Stantec’s mining practice employs close to 300 people, but has access to the firm’s 10,600 employees in 156 offices across North America and their expertise in power generation, transportation, the environment and dozens of other engineering specialties.

“We are looking at one and a half to two years of solid backlog and we’re still growing,” said Mayhew.

Diversification is a key to weathering any economic downturns. If base metal prices plummet and projects are put on hold, the hope is that potash, gold and diamonds will keep Stantec busy.

The firm’s biggest client now is the BHP-Billiton Jansen project in Saskatchewan, currently the subject of a feasibility study. If approved, Jansen will begin producing potash in 2015 and ramp up to eight million tons a year. The total capital cost of the project is estimated at $12 billion.

Other recent and ongoing projects include Potash Corporation of Canada’s Allan Mine upgrades and HudBay Minerals’ Lalor project. Closer to home in Northern Ontario, Stantec is engaged with Vale, Xstrata Nickel, Quadra FNX, First Nickel, Goldcorp and Lake Shore Gold.

As an independent, niche consulting firm, McIntosh Engineering focused almost exclusively on North America, “but that vision is changing,” said Mayhew. There are still no Stantec mining practice offices outside Canada and the U.S., but the firm’s track record and relationships forged over the years have resulted in several assignments in Europe, South America and Asia.

Wardrop

The Wardrop office has grown in Sudbury “because we realized that Sudbury is the mining capital of Canada, if not the world, and having recognized that, we saw it as vital to establish ourselves very strongly in a huge mining centre,” said Sudbury office general manager Jamie Santi.

Acquired by U.S.-based Tetra Tech in February 2009 and soon to be rebranded as Tetra Tech’s mining practice, Wardrop’s mining expertise ranges from due diligence, scoping and feasibility studies to environmental assessments, permitting, closure plans and EPCM assignments.

The Sudbury office is working on projects for Vale and Xstrata, and is assisting its Vancouver office on a big project for uranium miner Cameco in Saskatchewan. Sudbury-based staff, said Santi, can be working on projects in Chile, Australia and the Northwest Territories at any given time.

“We’re pretty bullish on the future of mining,” said Santi. “Locally, there are a lot of investments being made and, globally, we see a lot of activity in emerging markets, so we’re very optimistic.”

AMEC

The AMEC office in Sudbury specializes in geotechnical and environmental work and provides support to the firm’s principal mining offices in the Greater Toronto Area and Vancouver.

Sixty-five per cent of AMEC’s work in the Sudbury office is related to mining, said Sudbury business unit manager Dan Cacciotti.

“We do a lot of dam work for Vale, especially dam design, construction and rehabilitation for tailings, clean water for fire suppression and for power dams on the Spanish River. We also drill boreholes to identify soil type and foundations for buildings, railway beds and roads.”

AMEC was the primary consulting firm for the De Beers Victor Mine in Northern Ontario’s James Bay Lowlands and is currently engaged on projects for Northgate Minerals, Detour Gold, Trelawney Mining and Exploration, Brigus Gold and St. Andrews Goldfields in Ontario. Another client is Baffinland Iron Mines’ Mary River project on Baffin Island.

“We haven’t seen a downturn since I joined the company in 1999,” said Cacciotti. “I’ve done nothing but look for people ever since. It seems the worse the economy gets, the better it is for mining because gold is strong and there are gold mines popping up everywhere.”

Knight-Piésold

Knight-Piesold is a smaller, specialized consultancy with 800 employees and offices in Canada, the U.S., Peru, Chile, South Africa, Australia and Ghana. Its primary Canadian office is in Vancouver, but a North Bay branch was established in 1994 with six or seven people and has since grown to 40 or 45 employees.

The North Bay office specializes in tailings and waste management, rock mechanics and geotechnics, environmental and social studies, mine closure, reclamation, project management and QA/QC, said managing director Ken Embree.

A lot of the projects they work on are in Canada, but “mining is a small business and it’s a relationship-based business, so we go wherever our clients are,” said Embree.

“If there’s a project, for example, in Peru, and it’s a Canadian client who knows us and wants us to be involved, we’ll team up in situations like that with people from our other offices.”

Knight-Piésold is currently working on Avalon Rare Metals’ Thor Lake project in the Northwest Territories, Stillwater Canada’s Marathon PGM project, Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest project in the Ring of Fire and Northern Graphite’s Bisset Creek graphite project 100 kilometres east of North Bay.  The firm has also performed work for AQM Copper in Peru, Silver Standard Resources in Mexico and Quadra FNX’s Malmbjerg molybdenum project in Greenland.

The consultancies in Northern Ontario have grown because the type of work they offer presents an attractive career for young engineers and scientists, said Embree. During mining downturns when engineers had a harder time finding work, Knight-Piésold was able to scoop up quality people, and “great people are always busy,” he said.

Proximity to so many mines and quality of life have contributed to the growth of the region’s consultancies.

“We’re close to Sudbury, close to Timmins, close to Toronto, but the other thing is the quality of life here,” said Embree. “We’re in a small city of 60,000 people with two lakes, access to outdoor recreation and a great lifestyle.”

Sudbury is attractive to Hatch because of its mining culture and the fact that it’s home to several major clients and research organizations, said Gallagher.

“You get past that perception that some people in Toronto have and it’s a pretty nice place to live. A lot of our people wouldn’t give it up for Toronto, me being one of them. I live on a lake in the south end of the city. My commute is 25 minutes. You can spend 25 minutes going absolutely nowhere on the Queen Elizabeth Way in Toronto.”

www.stantec.com
www.hatch.ca
www.wardrop.com
www.amec.com
www.knightpiesold.com

 

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