Champion Iron Mines steps back from its Labrador Trough rail proposal
by Greg Klein
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Another transportation setback has highlighted the challenges of reaching Canada’s resource-rich hinterlands. Champion Iron Mines TSX:CHM announced July 2 it had terminated an agreement to use facilities at the deep-sea port of Sept-Iles, Quebec. The decision saved the company a $25.6-million payment due to the port by July 1. But it places further uncertainty on transportation proposals to the Labrador Trough straddling northern Quebec and Labrador. The news followed a June 12 announcement that Cliffs Natural Resources was suspending its Ontario chromite project and, along with it, a province-backed road proposal for the Ring of Fire. In February CN TSX:CNR stated it had suspended its feasibility study on an estimated $5-billion, 800-kilometre Quebec rail line to the Trough.
Champion attributed its decision to a failure to gain private and public backing for a new railway. Estimated at $1.33 billion in the company’s February pre-feasibility report for the Consolidated Fire Lake North iron ore project, the 310-kilometre line would connect the southern Trough with Sept-Isles, on the St. Lawrence River’s north shore. The company studied the project despite the fact that Champion had already signed a collaboration framework agreement backing CN’s proposal.
Champion reverted to Plan A following CN’s February decision. Discussions resumed with private and public interests to finance, build and operate a multi-user railway. But they failed to make progress by the July 1 payment deadline.
Of course market conditions played their role. Iron ore prices have been falling since a February high of about $154 per dry metric tonne. The following month the Melbourne Herald Sun reported that Rio Tinto chief economist Vivek Tulpule expected prices to fall to nearly $100 by September 2014. On June 24, however, Platts quoted Macquarie bank analysts who spoke of a potential recovery later this year. A July 2 report from China’s Xinhua news service stated, “Although there might be fluctuations, prices of iron ore imports will see a falling trend in the longer term.”
“The past year has been a very challenging period for iron ore developers,” conceded Champion president/CEO Tom Larsen in his July 2 statement. But he emphasized the company remains committed to its flagship and to “securing transportation and port-handling services that will permit the company to place among the lowest-cost iron producers in the Labrador Trough.”
Even without Champion’s proposed railway, the region benefits from mines, plants, power and two existing rail lines. The Iron Ore Company of Canada owns and operates the Quebec North Shore and Labrador route, which connects its Labrador City facility in the southern Trough to Sept-Isles, 418 kilometres away. As a common carrier, the QNSL is required to ship other companies’ goods as well.
An ArcelorMittal subsidiary runs a private carrier called the Cartier Railway from the company’s Mont-Wright operation, 40 kilometres southwest of Labrador City, to Sept-Isles.
Iron ore prices notwithstanding, Asian investment in the Trough has continued. Chinese companies are said to be looking at Rio’s 58.7% interest in the Iron Ore Company of Canada, of which Mitsubishi holds another 26.2%. The Anglo-Australian giant reportedly wants to sell its stake for up to $4 billion.
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