By Marc Frank | Reuters
Cuba said at the weekend that unrefined nickel plus cobalt production was returning to normal after weeks of torrential rains in eastern Holguin province had shut down open pit mines and slowed output.
“Nickel production in the province has begun to stabilize,” Sunday evening’s government newscast said, in a report on recovery efforts in eastern Cuba where flooding from Tropical Storm Noel caused $500 million in damage.
Cuba’s three plants are located in the mountains of Holguin province which since early October has been battered by the worst rainfall in decades, and was swamped by Tropical Storm Noel 10 days ago.
The Rene Ramos Latour nickel processing plant, which was closed when flood waters reached its drying ovens more than a week ago, reopened on Sunday, Holguin’s local television channel reported.
The two other plants in the area operated with skeleton staffs over the last two weeks, an industry source told Reuters, with little if any material moving in or out of the plants.
At the weekend transportation remained difficult, with the military, construction crews, and residents working to reopen washed out roads and bridges.
“Damage from the torrential rains have effected the collection and distribution of food, passenger transportation and the moving of materials ... for the processing of nickel plants in Moa and Nicaro,” government radio reported on Saturday.
The Nicaro-based Rene Ramos Latour plant and Moa-based Che Guevara plant are owned and operated by state-run Cubaniquel, while a third Moa-based plant, the Pedro Soto Alba, is a joint venture with Canada-based Sherritt International.
The Rene Ramos Latour plant produces around 10,000 tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt per year.
The Che Guevara plant and Pedro Soto Alba plant each produce more than 30,000 tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt annually.
Basic Industry Minister Yadira Garcia said earlier this year Cuba produced 74,000 tonnes of unrefined nickel plus cobalt in 2006 and planned to produce 76,000 tonnes this year.
The Caribbean island is one of the world’s largest nickel producers and supplies 10 percent of the world’s cobalt, according to the Basic Industry Ministry.
Nickel is essential in the production of stainless steel and other corrosion-resistant alloys. Cobalt is critical in production of super alloys used for such products as aircraft engines.
Nickel emerged as Cuba’s biggest export-earner in 2000. It garnered more than $1 billion in 2005 and around $1.3 billion in 2006 for the country, not including Sherritt’s share, with almost all output destined for Canada, Europe and China.
Cuban nickel is considered to be Class II, with an average 90 percent nickel content.
Cuba’s National Minerals Resource Center reported that eastern Holguin province counted 34 percent of the world’s known reserves, or some 800 million tonnes of proven nickel plus cobalt reserves, and another 2.2 billion tonnes of probable reserves, with lesser reserves in other parts of the country. (Editing by John Picinich)