Mary River Iron Project
By David K. Joyce
General During August of 2007, I was privileged to visit the Mary River Project of Baffinland Iron Mines Ltd. (Baffinland), in the Arctic region of Canada, in the middle of Baffin Island. I was working for SNC-Lavalin Engineers and Constructors as Vice president, Business Development, at the time, and we were vying for the contract to be the engineer for the detailed engineering design, procurement and construction management (EPCM) of the iron mine and facilities that Baffinland Iron Mines Ltd. hopes to build there in the future.
The Mary River Project is one of the world’s richest and largest undeveloped iron ore projects. The mineralization has a high enough percentage of iron and is free enough from impurities that it could qualify as a direct shipping “lump” ore. This means that a mine could be developed and lump ore shipped directly to customers without expensive and environmentally detrimental processing facilities. This is a big plus for the Mary River Project. On the other hand, the Mary River Project is, climatically speaking, in one of the most hostile places in the world. The ocean around Baffin Island is frozen 9 months of the year, and the average temperature, throughout the year, averages minus 18 degrees Celsius. THAT is cold! Construction of, operation at, and shipping from the mine would be extremely challenging. The ships to move the ore 10 or 11 months per year in these difficult conditions do not yet exist and will have to be constructed especially for this project. A special 120km railway will have to be constructed, on permafrost to move ore from the mine to tidewater. No easy feats! These onerous and difficult requirements are some of the reasons why the Mary River Project has not been developed in the past. The technology and market conditions did not exist to make the operation a reality. Today, technically, those capabilities do exist and Baffinland is working towards making this project a reality. Financially, the project will cost over three billion dollars to build and Baffinland is working towards firming-up the estimated cost of the project and then raising the necessary capital on the world’s financial markets.
The iron mining complex envisioned by Baffinland Iron Mines is intended to exploit several huge deposits of very rich iron mineralization. The feasibility study recommended developing a large open pit mine at Mary River, a crushing and screening plant, a railway to ship lump iron ore to the Steensby Inlet ship loading facilities. The production rate was envisioned at 18 million tonnes per year of lump iron ore and fines destined for the blast furnaces of Europe and, possibly, the world.
The iron deposits of the Mary River iron deposits are very high grade, consisting, mainly, of hematite and magnetite that require little upgrading outside of a careful mining sequence and are considered direct-shipping ores. That means no upgrading mill or pelletizing plant would be required to prepare the ore for shipping. This fact has simplified the project significantly since there would be less environmental “footprint”. This means that if the ores require no mill to upgrade them, then the physical area of the plant would be reduced plus there would be no chemicals required for treatment of the ores. Best of all, there would be no tailings pond full of ground up waste rock and residual waste chemicals. The project, in some ways is environmentally benign.
It would not be totally benign, however! Baffinland would have to build a large complex to house many hundreds of people, generate power and build and operate a 120km railway to transport ore to Steensby Inlet andto bring supplies back to the mine complex.
One of the biggest challenges of the Mary River Project is that it is in the Arctic! There have been other mines in the Arctic (Nanisivik and Polaris) but most have been underground mines, operations where work is carried out below the surface and away from the VERY severe climate that holds the Arctic in its grasp for much of the year. As well, shipping at these operations was limited to the ice-free times of the year –just a few months. The Mary River Project would have to operate an open pit mine year round, ship ore to the coast by railway, year round AND load it on to gigantic ice-breaking bulk ore carriers that would operate 11 months or so per year! No small order!! It has never been done before.
There are a number of engineering challenges on this project. First, to operate an open-pit mining project year-round in the Arctic is very difficult due to the average minus 50 degree Celsius temperatures during January and February. Second, it is a major engineering feat to build and operate a large-tonnage railway year-round in Arctic conditions AND one that is built on permafrost. Third, year-round shipping through thick ice, such as is required for the Mary River Project, has never been done, in the world, to date. The ice thicknesses are such that several ice breaking ore carrying ships, of a design that does not currently exist, would be required to be purpose-built for this project. This aspect of the project was not part of the scope of that we were considering but is critical for the success of the Mary River project. The ships would probably be designed and built by a shipping contractor.
During August of 2007, I led a team of engineers to Mary River to gain first hand experience of the conditions and the “lay of the land” to put together the best possible EPCM proposal. This short writ-up will give you an idea of what it is like there (in the summer) and give you an idea of what the project is about. It is not a place that many of us have the opportunity to visit!!
The Mary River deposits are Proterozoic , high-grade, bedded iron deposits interbedded with banded iron formations, iron silicates, greywacke and granite gneiss., granite and hornblende gneiss.
To date, mineralization has been examined mostly on surface exposures and in diamond drill cores. There has been a 200,000 tonne bulk sample taken to evaluate the potential ore in European blast furnaces. The ore minerals appear to be bedded hematite and magnetite with very little crystallization of interest to mineral collectors seen to-date. In the deeper parts of the deposit, pyrite can be seen in fractures and breccia fillings. As well, certain parts of the deposit have had silica solutions percolating through the mass and breccias can be filled or partially filled with quartz, sometimes with openings of quartz crystals.
The minerals of collector interest that are encountered in the project are minerals related to the metamorphism that the ancient rocks have undergone over time. The local schists are rich in garnets crystals which sometimes are large and very well formed. As well, the schists contain local concentrations of staurolite and anthophyllite in well formed crystals.
No doubt, if and when mining commences, interesting mineral specimens will be uncovered with the many millions of tons of rock and ore that will be moved every year.
Flora and Fauna
I did see some animals during my visit. The Arctic is a very difficult environment but there are a surprising number of animals that reside there.
The animal that many people think about when they think of the Arctic is the Polar Bear. Thankfully, I did not encounter any of these beasts. We were inland most of the time and they usually reside by the sea and on the sea ice. I did see a beautiful Arctic wolf that came up close to the camp. He/she was pure white and came close enough to peer at us from the edge of the camp. I saw lots of snow geese!
Unfortunately, I WAS working so I could not take much time for wildlife photography.
There were also lots of interesting plants. Small wild flowers and even low bush blueberries. I wish that I had time to take more pictures.
Here are a series of images that show some of the sights that I took in on the trip:
This is not a picture of land from 4,000 feet in the air but is a picture of ice floes
in the ocean south of Baffin Island.
Some interesting topography from 20,000 feet in the air!
More ice floes with Baffin Island in the distance.
Interesting polygonal structure of the land, common in permafrost regions.
This is the camp at Mary River that I stayed in. These are the living and office
quarters of the exploration, environmental and engineering people on-site.
A view of Mary River Camp from the tote road from the northern coastal port at
Here is a view of Mary River Camp from the helicopter.
This is Deposit #1 at Mary River. The core of the mountain is solid iron oxide.
See the black at the top? All hematite and magnetite mineralization! The Mary
River camp is at the base of the mountain to the left and back a bit, just off screen.
The air strip at Mary River Camp where freight planes shuttle supplies in from
the coast and helicopters move people around the area and take supplies to the
diamond drill rigs. Deposit #1 in the background.
Here is a view of a diamond drill rig on the side of Deposit #1. What a place
Some nice Arctic flowers growing in a crack in the lichen covered rock.
Colleague Martial Cote standing beside the camp inukshuk.
Martial Cote and me at the supply/construction port beside Milne Inlet.
Most of the permanent residents of Baffin Island are Inuit. There no Inuit villages
near the Mary River Project but a large proportion of the employees at Mary
River Project are Inuit.
A geologist working in the “core shack” logging diamond drill core. This is how
the mineralization is outlined and quantified.
When you visit the Arctic, chances are that you will stop at Iqaluit, the largest
town on Baffin Island. All of the signs are in both English and Inuktitut.
All of the buildings are built on stilts to prevent building heat from melting the
permafrost that underlies everything.
Even the houses are built on stilts!
Anthophyllite crystals, 20mm long, in schist
Staurolite crystals in diamond drill core.
The End! I hope that you enjoyed this short view of the Mary River Project and