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Vale mining boss looks ahead to a sustainable future in the Sudbury Basin

Replenishing the diminishing nickel reserves in Sudbury begins with people power and partnerships, says Dino Otranto
Dino Otranto (Len Gillis
Dino Otranto (Len Gillis/

The days of senior management thinking that what was good for Inco was good for Sudbury are long over.

The head of operations of its corporate successor, Vale, talked this week about 'transformational' change on the operational and technology front in the Sudbury Basin but also within the internal culture at one of the world's biggest base metal miners.

"What we've learned as an organization is how we do what we do is more important than ever before," said Dino Otranto, chief operating officer for Vale's North Atlantic Operations and Asian Refineries.

Otranto delivered an annual state-of-the-mining-company address at a virtual event for the Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce, entitled Transforming for Sustainable Mining, on March 23.

He dove into the details of productivity and production, talked about the company's improving safety performance with charts and graphs, but he also mentioned that big corporations like his need to shed the know-it-all attitude and start engaging, listening, and caring for its employees and partners, as well as better understand the community in order to build a future that all Sudburians want.

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"We need to restructure how we engage and how we listen and come up with more of a holistic long-term vision," Otranto said. "We're going to create a business here that no one has ever seen the likes of."

One of the cornerstones of the 'transformation' strategy, which he launched upon arrival in Sudbury two years ago, was to create a more inclusive workforce. Gender equality is but one aspect. There needs to be growth mindset to embrace different ways of thinking, even if it comes from outside the company.

Otranto finds local suppliers are consistently showing Vale ways to do things safely and efficiently. And there's plenty room for improvement on the employee recruiting side. Vale's Indigenous representation in its workforce remains "woefully low."

"Our organization is losing its arrogance that we own and we have the right. We are only gatekeepers for what's in the ground and our job is to facilitate the transition into helping green the planet, essentially."

Global fears of long-term nickel shortages to feed the future battery electric vehicle market have kept prices elevated despite current inventories of the metal being high. But the demand for nickel is only going to increase, he said.

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While only a handful of people in Sudbury may own electric vehicles, there'll be a greater mass movement toward these cars when they reach a price point that's attractive to consumers, he said. That inflection point is coming over the next five to 10 years.

The Sudbury Basin remains extremely rich with nickel ore reserves and other mineral opportunities, but the challenge is finding ways to economically mine them, Otranto said.

In calling out for partnerships to his virtual audience, Otranto said Vale needs to do business differently to unlock the potential of the basin and the skill of its workforce to keep the company operating in Sudbury for the long haul.

"We have excellent reserves. We need to do more to turn them into resources and good projects." 

In showing a slide of Vale's 20-year mining profile at operations in Sudbury, Thompson, Man., and Voisey's Bay, Labrador, many of the reserves from their flagship mines are being depleted, are degrading in quality, and are nearing the end of their operational life.

Vale needs to replenish those reserves to feed ore to their massive surface processing plants, which are critical to the viability of the business. Those are fixed costs, Otranto said, whether those plants are producing or not.

"Our challenge is to ensure those surface operations are always fed, by whatever source."

That's led to a shift in mentality for Vale to find enough ore to meet their current production requirements.

On the operational side, late 2021 signals the start of commercial production on the first of four phases of expansion to access ore bodies at Vale's Copper Cliff South Mine, a project expected to create 270 new jobs. 

"Once complete, the Copper Cliff Mine, in the end, will be probably one of the biggest underground mining complexes, out of a single ore body, in the world," Otranto said.

Vale is still working on a mine project partnership with Glencore, on the east end of the Sudbury Basin, that could see a 50-50 joint venture company established.

The project involves access minerals sitting on the two neighbouring companies' property boundaries. The ore at Vale's Victor Mine would be accessed using Glencore's underground infrastructure at Nickel Rim South. 

Calling it a "fantastic ore body" containing nickel, copper and platinum group metals, Otranto said, if delivered upon, it would be a great demonstration of how two companies who've conducted business separately can put their historic differences aside.

"The end game is to create a sustainable operation for many years to come."

Otranto offered no timelines on when a final deal would be struck or when commercial production could start.

"We're not quite there yet but we're extremely close."

But until those larger projects come into full production, Vale has greenlighted three small but critical open-pit projects (Stobie, CCM and Blezard), ranging between five to 10 years of mine life, to bridge the gap over the next decade.

Otranto said small mine projects like this could be the future of operations in the Sudbury Basin.

On the high-tech side, Vale is putting the final touches to commissioning its iROC facility in Sudbury, a remote operating centre that will eventually be conducting 24/7 monitoring of all of Vale's mine operations in the Sudbury Basin, across Canada, and all its assets in the North American hemisphere. The control station is inside a former engineering building that was gutted and refurbished.

Over the years, the company has invested heavily in underground wireless network technology in its mines to track equipment and employees to gauge performance and for safety purposes to understand where everyone is should an emergency occur underground.