By MARK CARDWELL
After years of flirting with its all-time annual tonnage mark, the Port of Sept-Îles is on pace to register a new record high for volume handled in 2021.
And with several new mining and transportation projects coming to fruition, port officials expect many more record-breaking performances at their facility in the years ahead.
“It’s been another year of growth for us and will likely be our best year ever,” said Pierre Gagnon, the long-time president and CEO of the Port of Sept-Îles.
He said his port is on pace to handle more than 35 MT of total volume in 2021. That would represent a 6% increase in port volume from 2020, and a 19% increase over 2019. It would also break the port’s all-time annual record high of 34.9 MT, a mark set in 1979.
“It will be close but we should beat it,” Gagnon said in early October “We’re eager to achieve that new mark. If we don’t, it will happen next year for sure.”
That confidence stems from several major mining and infrastructure projects and investments nearing fruition that will help to both increase and facilitate the flow of high-grade, low-impurity iron ore concentrate and pellets from the Labrador Trough to and through the Port of Sept-Îles to markets around the world.
One is the multimillion-dollar modernization and expansion of the short-haul, heavy-tonnage rail line that serves two of the port’s principal shipping wharves: the multiuser dock and the Pointe-Noire terminal.
Owned and operated by Société ferroviaire et portuaire de Pointe-Noire (SFP Pointe-Noire), a private-public partnership between the Quebec government and mining companies such as Tata Steel Canada, Tacora Resources and Quebec Iron Ore, a wholly owned subsidiary of Champion Iron Mines (Champion). SFP Pointe-Noire facility is in the midst of a $135-million makeover.
Once complete in Q4 2022, the upgrades will double its carrying capacity to more than 20 MT and improve its year-round operational reliability on Quebec’s rugged North Shore, a vast, tundra-bound region the size of Italy. (See accompanying story)
By then, the Phase II expansion of Champion’s Bloom Lake mine will also have been completed. Approved in November 2020 and expected to be completed in early Q2 2022, the project will double the current production of iron ore concentrate at the Bloom Lake property to nearly 16 MT.
Located 500 kilometres north of Sept-Îles on the Quebec-Labrador border and the towns of Fermont, Wabush and Labrador City, the property contains dozens of mineral claims over an area the size of nearly 4,000 football fields.
That represents only a tiny portion, however, of the Labrador Trough, a massive geological formation visible from space that contains an estimated 80 billion tonnes of near-surface deposits of high-grade iron ore.
Like neighbouring open-pit miners IOC and Tacora Resources, Champion ships its iron ore by Northern Quebec and Labrador railway to Arnaud Station, just north of Sept-Îles, where it is transferred to SFP Pointe-Noire for delivery to the two wharves it serves.
Together, the ongoing upgrades and investments in the SFP Pointe-Noire facilities and the Champion mine will add between 5 and 7 MT of new volume to the Port of Sept-Îles in 2022.
“Next year we will break the 40 MT mark,” said Gagnon. “It will be a crowning achievement on the years of planning and investment by industry, government and our port, especially the multiuser wharf.”
Gagnon points to Cleveland Cliff’s tumultuous exit from both the Labrador Trough as a turning point in the fortunes of both the iron ore mining industry in the Labrador Trough and the steady uptick in volumes shipped from his port.
In 2016, Australian-owned Champion notably purchased Cliff’s multi-billion-dollar mine and facilities for a fraction (less than 1%) of its initial acquisition cost in 2012. Soon after, the Quebec government-led consortium purchased Cliff’s crucial port-stockyard and rail line and created SFP Pointe-Noire to run it, providing unfettered access to the multiuser wharf, which is the biggest deep-water facility on the North America Eastern Seaboard and is equipped with some of the largest ship loading equipment in the world.
“It’s really like a fairy tale story with a very happy ending,” said Gagnon. “Our public-private model of development and cooperation is very important for the mining industry. Having everyone contributing financially and sharing infrastructure means we can keep operation costs low.
“And not having to carry a heavy burden on capital expenditures means our partners have more resources available to invest in new mining and processing equipment,” added Gagnon.
Though the world price of iron ore has fallen sharply from its high of around $USD 220 in July – largely a result of China’s announced plans to cut steel production in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a move many China watchers believe is motivated by the communist regime’s desire to have clear skies in Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics – Gagnon is confident that demand will remain strong for the high-grade iron ore from the Labrador Trough, which is used in blends with lower-grade ore and fetches a premium on world markets.
“Our rock is harder and easier to enrich than the sediment-rich rock of big global producers like Australia and Brazil,” said Gagnon.
He said the grade of iron ore content produced by his port’s partners ranges from 66% to as high as 69%.
That is nearly substantially higher than the 55% to 60% grade of most major producers. Premiums are roughly US$ 5 for every 1% of grade increase.
“Canadian iron ore is recognized around the world for its high-grade quality,” said Gagnon. “Steel makers love it because it has fewer of the impurities that produce slags and other unwanted by-products in their mills. And it helps them to lower their carbon emissions.”
Going forward, Gagnon said the Port of Sept-Îles will continue to rely on its multiuser approach in its investment and development projects. It will also chart a course towards cleaner energy in all of its strategies and actions.
“We want to become a multi-energy port complex,” said Gagnon. “We intend to explore and to introduce alternative fuels into our operation wherever possible to help advance the idea of a green port and steel industry.”
The Port of Sept-Îles, he added, has “lots of space available” to build alternative energy complexes – everything from wind turbines and hydrogen to biofuel and ammonia.
“This is a very stimulating effort that will help to define our facility over the next decade,” said Gagnon. “We believe that we have both a moral and corporate obligation to move away from fossil fuels to new sources of energy that are less harmful for the environment.”