Engineering, Consulting & Drilling Services

Solving mining’s most difficult issues

Engineering, Construction and Consulting

Regardless of how rich a jurisdiction’s mineral endowment is, usually above ground factors play an equally important role in driving investment decisions. Geopolitics, security and a straightforward mining code are obvious considerations, but beyond that, access to a workforce that is technically skilled, with an abundance of companies that provide services to aid miners in execution cannot be understated.

One of the mainstays of Québec’s mining service economy for the last 50 years has been SNC-Lavalin. The company has led the design and construction of almost every aluminum smelter in the province, from the initial investments in the Saguenay, Becancour and Sept-Isles regions, to the most recent construction of the AP60 demonstration plant. SNC has also built gold and iron ore mines, processing plants, and today it continues to grow its sustainable mining group, which specializes in the design of tailings storage facilities, mine water management and closure plans.

“Our approach throughout the process of delivering the project is to constantly evaluate where we are, what challenges are present and how to mitigate potential problems. This means that when we arrive at the endpoint, our clients have predictability of the outcome,” Cesar Inostroza, senior vice-president-mining and metallurgy at SNC-Lavalin, said of the company’s philosophy.

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“Over the past year, we observed that there are many projects in the exploration stage that will soon transition to construction. There is Matawinie, Windfall, Kiena, Horne 5, and Côté Gold in northeastern Ontario. In our business, the construction and operation phase are where we get our big numbers.”

Jérémi Fournier, President, Fournier & Fils Inc.

Inostroza also spoke about the important role engineering firms play in boosting the competitiveness of Québec’s burgeoning battery and critical material supply chains. He asserts that as the electrification trend grows, people are going to want to buy vehicles that are built with lithium, aluminum and other materials made in a sustainable manner. In that respect, Québec should be able to differentiate its mining processes from those of China and many other competitors around the world. “The positioning of Québec’s energy generation through hydroelectric facilities, clean deposits, and engineering companies, such as ours, that look at sustainable development as the only way to deliver a project are key differentiators for Québec. This means the choice of technology, equipment, water, emissions, consumption of power, and clean energy are all considered when we design projects. Québec has all the ingredients to make that successful,” he explained.

Québec’s ability to execute on its green economy ambitions does not solely hinge on large engineering firms. Specialist technology-oriented firms like Seneca also possess an ability to develop, design and build complex processing infrastructure that has a material impact on lowering CO2 emissions. Seneca has been instrumental in helping Nouveau Monde develop a DC type of Acheson furnace, similar to what was used in the 1900’s in the Niagara region for the silicon carbide market. The purification process is based on evaporating oxides out of the natural carbon by raising the temperature of the natural graphite. Seneca was mandated to design and build the processing unit, which is currently being commissioned to supply high purity graphite destined for lithium-ion battery anodes.

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“The biggest change is that we now see a globalization of the problems that occur within the mining industry. 25 years ago, if you had issues with people that were stealing your merchandise, they were not coming from around the world. They were coming from a 50 km radius. Today there are possible enemies all over the world lying there waiting for an error to be made or any type of situation that can offer them a weakness that they can exploit.”

Claude A. Sarrazin, President, Groupe SIRCO

Expanding the business model

Not only does Seneca supply engineering services to the community it is also now a developer that is investing in its own proprietary process technology to finance and commercialize first-generation commercial ventures. “We are now invested in the commercialization of our patented process technology to recycle commercial lithium-ion battery components, and by developing a proprietary hydrometallurgical solution, we can recycle the valued lithium-ion battery components at battery grade quality,” said Raymond Simoneau, partner and vice-president of Seneca.

G Mining Services, a specialized mining consultancy firm based in Québec has also seen its business and ambitions scale in recent years. When GBR spoke to the company in 2019, they were in the middle of leading the construction of the Fruta del Norte project in Ecuador. They went on to complete that project on budget and three months early, according to G Mining Services’ vice president-Finance, Michael Gignac. That success led to additional work from the Lundin family, as G Mining is now working for Bluestone Resources on their Cerro Blanco Project. They are also working on the phase two expansion of the mill at Fruta del Norte to aid Lundin Gold in increasing their throughput to 4,200 tonnes per day. Within Québec the company has been working with Galaxy Resources on their James Bay lithium project while also completing feasibility study work for Generation Mining on their Marathon project in Ontario.

“Right now, we see strong demand for our services across the board, from geology to underground to open pit mining engineering, the construction trades and processing,” Gignac observed. That uptick in demand is leading to faster than expected growth, which is reflected in the expansion in hiring. “In 2020, G Mining Services employed about 80 people. Today, we employ close to 110 people, and anticipate that we will grow our staff to 150 employees over the next year based on our current workload,” said Gignac.

The company also formed an entity called G Mining Ventures, which came about because the company felt that building a mine is more difficult than operating one. As Gignac explained: “This is because of the large CAPEX budgets, increased complexity and higher headcount required during the construction phase versus the operating phase. We brought the three mines we built through commissioning and into operations, so we are confident in our ability to operate a mine.” From here, the objective is to acquire one or multiple precious metal assets that are close to a construction decision, and then the company will look to leverage its expertise to drive value for shareholders.

Brownfield Services

When it comes to expertise in brownfield projects, Norda Stelo is one of the leading consulting engineering and construction firms in Québec. As Norda Stelo CEO Alex Brisson and his colleague vice president-resources and industry Sophie Boisvert described, many of the company’s projects consist of equipment and asset retrofitting, integration of new equipment, modification of process and layout, environmental evaluations due to modifications, and asset integrity evaluations. Also, because they have experience in process using a variety of chemicals, they are involved in design modifications, maintenance repairs and inspection programs to increase reliability of particularly vulnerable equipment of the plant process. “Because of our specialization in brownfield projects, we have come to understand that by extending the life of existing equipment and entire facilities, we ultimately have an impact not only on the financial health of our clients, but on the environment, including climate change,” Brisson stated.

By and large, Norda Stello relies on an AI driven digital platform it developed, which gives predictability on the health of existing facilities and supports sound decision making and planning regarding asset management. “Currently, most maintenance operations are based on the knowledge of experienced personnel without it being scanned or secured. By using analytical techniques to increase comprehension and scanning of asset data, the mine raises the level of monitoring and comprehension of its operational process,” Boisvert added.

Underground Services

Given the plethora of underground mines scattered throughout Québec, companies like Procon and A2GC have carved out a competitive niche servicing the market. Although Procon is based in British Columbia, it felt it needed a physical presence in Eastern Canada, so in 2018 Procon acquired Val-d'Or-based Promec Mining. Since the merger, Procon Est du Canada Ltée (PCE) has picked up work from such notable clients as Eldorado Gold, Wallbridge, Agnico Eagle and Wesdome. PCE was recently awarded the F.J. O'Connell Trophy for its strong health and safety performance in 2020. Procon CEO John McVey highlighted: “This achievement is a testament to the success of the acquisition and the capabilities of the Procon team and culture that we have established in Eastern Canada over the past three years.”

For A2GC, a boutique consulting firm founded in 2015 by Patrick Andrieux, its main expertise lies in rock mechanics and engineering. The aim is to minimize uncertainty, risks, costs, cycle times and delays, while also working to maximize productivity, production, and ultimately profits. Given the maturity of many of the mines in Québec, mines must now go deeper underground to find value. That complexity calls for specialized skills which A2GC offers. “The engineering challenges associated with geotechnical settings and mining in a deep and high stress environment are diverse and significant. Deep and high stress mining requires sound strategic mine planning approaches as well as good tactical processes. The development of the underground infrastructure required for the exploitation of deep reserves needs to be carefully designed,” Andrieux expounded.

Drilling

Service providers like Major Drilling tend to be a strong bellwether for the overall health of the industry, because drilling demand reveals the extent to which companies are able to access capital to invest in exploration. In this since, from where Major Drilling president and CEO Denis Larocque sits, Québec is in the early stage of a new bull market cycle.

His view is that the current cycle mirrors the 2004 to 2012 cycle. It started from 2013 to 2019, when there was six years of downturn, and very little exploration. “Now the mining companies are running out of reserves again, and despite the pandemic, we saw the seniors come to the table with bigger programs and the gold price improved. We saw the first wave come from the seniors, which got the attention of the investment community, and we then saw the juniors raise money.”

Subsequent to that, precious metals juniors began getting funding for bigger programs, and consequently, Major Drilling was able to double its revenue from juniors year over year. “The next leg will come from base metals. We have not seen base metals yet come to the table with any serious increase in funding, and I think it is just a question of time before they start much bigger programs,” Larocque predicted.

“When you decide to drill at 3,400 meters deep it means you have plans of building a deep mine, and building a deep mine requires serious investment. We see more complicated projects in regions like Québec, whereas you would not necessarily venture into a project with that technical risk profile in an unsophisticated mining jurisdiction.”

Denis Larocque, President & CEO, Major Drilling

Labor

One of the most universal challenges that all mining companies and service providers are facing is the scarcity of qualified talent. Despite mining offering well above average salaries, the industry’s workforce is aging, and the younger generation is not filling roles at the requisite pace. To solve this issue, the Comité sectoriel de main-d'oeuvre de l'industrie des mines (CSMO Mines) was founded in 2006 with the goal of balancing the supply and demand of skilled labor. The organization develops continuing education programs, identifies industry human resource requirements, and works to pinpoint employment issues facing its target clientele. “Certain positions are very difficult to recruit at the moment as there is a lack of qualified workers. Positions such as heavy equipment mechanics, foragers, supervisors, heavy equipment operators, mining technicians and engineers have a very scarce talent pool to tap into. This is also the case for new positions related to electrification and automation, instrumentation control and electromechanics,” observed Kathy Gauthier, general director of CSMO Mines.

The organization is also working hard to make mining more inclusive and diverse by developing training programs for aboriginal workers. The next step for the organization is to rollout programs that will help better integrate women into the mining workforce as well.

Image courtesy of AMQ