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While contruction of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mind went ahead on schedule -- shown above in 2005 -- the processing planet planned for Placentia, Newfoundland never materialized. Photo taken in January 2005. (INCO)
While contruction of the Voisey’s Bay nickel mind went ahead on schedule -- shown above in 2005 -- the processing planet planned for Placentia, Newfoundland never materialized. Photo taken in January 2005. (INCO)

A nickel mine and the missing Placentia processing plant Add to ...

Since our inaugural Top 1000 issue in 1984, Report on Business magazine has been reporting on the highs and lows in business, from around the world. Some of the juiciest stories, however, were the ones we never reported. Read all 12 articles here.


It’s amazing how often serendipity plays a role in uncovering a great story.

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One morning in May of 2000, I’d come back from the cafeteria with a coffee in my hand and I was standing restlessly at my desk at the magazine, where I was a staff writer. I’d finished my work on a previous assignment and it was time to look for the next subject. In the few minutes I’d been gone, a pile of office flotsam had landed on my desk. It was mostly a collection of press releases and industry publications I’d never bothered to look at. At another time, I might simply have moved the pile on to someone else’s desk. But this time I shuffled through it. And about 10 centimetres down, my eyes landed on an edition of The Charter, a thin, weekly newspaper from the little town of Placentia, Newfoundland.

Who knows what it was doing there; maybe the mailroom had misdirected it. With the mildest sense of curiosity, I began to turn the pages of cheap newsprint, and within a minute, I saw that something was going on in Placentia. Furious letters to the editor, stories quoting tirades by Placentia’s mayor against other town leaders. The anger seemed to have something to do with fallout from the huge nickel discovery six years earlier at Voisey’s Bay, Labrador, some 1,100 kilometres to the north.

I dug around, made a few calls, and soon discovered that in 1996, Placentia, a town of about 5,000 with 75 per cent unemployment, had won the bid for a life-saving refinery to process the Voisey’s Bay ore. It had promised 600 immediate jobs and many more after that. But the project had gotten caught up in a standoff between the nickel producer, Inco Ltd., and the government of Newfoundland. The refinery had never come and, in its absence, little Placentia was tearing itself apart.

I got approval to fly there as quickly as possible, and spent a week immersed in the drama, interviewing as many locals as I could. Most of them were surprised to be talking to a journalist from Toronto, but they wanted their story told. And what a story it was. It had villains and tragic heroes, earnest hope and gut-wrenching calamity. Having watched their community die slowly for years, a small group of civic leaders had dared to dream. The nickel from Voisey’s Bay would have to be processed somewhere–why not Placentia? It had an old abandoned U.S. Army base that would be perfect for a refinery. For a town edging toward oblivion, it would be like winning the jobs lottery.

Led by Placentia’s mayor, John Maher, the group did everything it could to win the bid, even teaming up with the rival community of Long Harbour, about a half-hour’s drive away. They did everything right. And in November of 1996, they won.

Other companies, promising still more jobs, announced they were coming too. Big-city real estate agents saw riches around the corner and began signing up clients. Placentia was set to boom. And almost immediately, it all went sour. The price of nickel dropped. Inco started to back away from the deal. And when it offered something smaller than a full refinery–which, as far as desperate Placentia was concerned, was still something–the then premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, Brian Tobin, said no. Tobin had just stared down the Spanish trawlers who’d tried to fish his province’s turbot. He wasn’t going to let Inco push him around.

In the years since that story, a great deal has happened. The Brazilian mining giant Vale bought Inco in 2006. That same year, 10 years after the original winning bid, a demonstration hydrometallurgical plant opened on Placentia’s site, with 130 jobs for local workers. It lasted just 2 1/2 years. And when the time came to build a full-scale processing plant, in 2009, that went to Long Harbour. The plant, still in construction, expects to produce its first nickel this year. When it’s fully operational, it will offer some 500 direct jobs to the region.

The people of Placentia, however, won’t be getting their news about the plant from their little local paper–The Charter shut down last year.

Trevor Cole is an author and journalist with three acclaimed novels and nine National Magazine Awards to his credit. His story about Placentia, “Nickelled and Damned,” won a gold medal and appeared in an anthology of 25 top National Magazine Award winners.

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