Wollastonite: an important but controversial search for more sources

By Antonio Torrisi
Published: Friday, 27 June 2014

An increasing demand for wollastonite, both in existing and emerging new markets, is pushing companies to look for new resources of this rare industrial mineral. Antonio Torrisi, Reporter, investigates how exploration in North America faced opposition on the basis of environmental and legal issues, which could lead to operational delays and increasing costs.

When the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) in the state of New York, US, approved NYCO Minerals’ plan to explore wollastonite resources near the town of Lewis, APA’s State Land Committee chairman, Richard Booth, said, “Obviously, this is controversial,” further stating, “This may well get litigated and that’s not a surprise,” adding that opponents to NYCO’s plan might continue to fight by taking the APA to court.

In a market that has witnessed ever-increasing global demand over the last three years, it is no surprise that NYCO and other companies have embarked on the search for new sources of wollastonite.

However, concerns about environmental and legal issues have dogged operations and led to delays and increasing costs.

Wollastonite is a white metasilicate of calcium (CaSiO3), with a theoretical content of 48.3% lime (CaO) and 51.7% Silica (SiO2).

Owing to properties such as high dimension and temperature stability, high strength and resistance to heat distortion and cracking, the mineral is used in a wide range of applications in ceramics, construction, paints and coatings, plastics additives and in the steel industry.

Additionally, new markets are emerging for this mineral, including environmental management, forest restoration and carbon sequestration, health care, agriculture and waste management.

According to the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the Indian Bureau of Mines (IBM), wollastonite production is limited to five main countries: China (300,000 tpa), India (150,000 tpa), the US (70,000 tpa), Mexico (50,000 tpa) and Finland (11,500 tpa).

Data released in 2011 from the IBM indicates that there has been an increase of 6% in global production of wollastonite, up to 620,000 tonnes.

NYCO Minerals expands in US

NYCO, the leading North American wollastonite supplier, has been mining the mineral near the town of Lewis, New York, since 1953, with a present output capacity of 150,000 tpa.

The company, which was acquired by Greece-based group S&B Industrial Minerals in 2012, also owns a wollastonite mine in Sonora, Mexico, with a production capacity of 265,000 tpa.

NYCO said its active mine in Lewis has less than three years’ supply remaining.

In 1998, the company acquired another mining licence for its Oak Hill wollastonite mine, which is located 1.5miles (2.4km) away from its Lewis mine, in New York.

Both the Oakhill and Lewis mines are within the Adirondack Park, a state-level protected area in northeast of the New York state.

According to John Brodt, a NYCO spokesperson, the exploitation of wollastonite resources at its Oak Hill mine in the near term is proving to be difficult. This is because the mineral is buried deep in the ground.

This anomaly (usually wollastonite is relatively simple to extract) means extraction of the mineral could pose serious competitive cost challenges to NYCO.

Brodt told IM that NYCO has responsibly mined wollastonite on a privately-owned portion of the Adirondack Park for more than 60 years and the mine has become an important component of the local economy.

The company has recently proposed a land swap to the State of New York, in order to acquire a 200-acre (0.81km2) area, known as Lot 8, neighbouring its existing wollastonite mine, in exchange for a privately owned 1,507-acre (6.1km2) area of forestland within the Jay Mountain Wilderness area.

The company believes Lot 8 contains a potential deposit of 1.2-1.5m tonnes of wollastonite reserves, which would enable it to extend its wollastonite operations for up to a further 10 years.

NYCO anticipated that, upon approval of the land swap by the State of New York, the company would mine only a portion of Lot 8, corresponding to 30-50 acres (0.13-0.2km2).

It added that it would carry out exploration in a quarter of Lot 8 and, if drill results indicate the mineralogy is of an acceptable grade and quantity, the company will proceed with the land swap.

Upon completion of the mining activities, NYCO would reclaim Lot 8, replant it and donate it back to the State of New York.

The APA and the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) governmental agencies, which rule mining legislation in the region, supported NYCO’s land swap proposal.

However, the land swap required the amendment of Article XIV of the State Constitution, known as Proposition 5.

The amendment was passed both by the State Senate and Assembly in June 2013, with the support from the New York state Governor, Andrew Cuomo, and DEC’s commissioner Joe Martens.

In November last year, New York voters also approved the land swap and amendments to Proposition 5, with a 53-47% result in favour returned by the New York state.

Brodt told IM that the swap earned the support of a broad array of environmental groups, including the Adirondack Mountain Club and Adirondack Council, labour unions, local governments and business organisations.

“The people of the state would give up 200 acres of Forest Preserve next to an existing wollastonite mine and receive at least 1,500 acres of land containing a better wildlife habitat as well as greater recreational opportunities,” William Janeway, the Adirondack Council executive director, said in a statement following the decision to go ahead with the land-swap, adding, “Over time, those 200 acres will come back into the Forest Preserve.”

“We’ll get a lot more ecologically significant land than we’ll be giving up,” agreed Neil Woodworth, Adirondack Mountain Club’s director.

Wollastonite opposition

Despite this support, the land swap met with opposition among other environmental activists in Adirondack Park. Groups Protect the Adirondacks, Adirondack Wild, the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter and the Atlantic Stage Legal Foundation have all gone on the record to state their dismay with the proposed land swap.

The activists complained that NYCO’s expansion would have a negative impact on the rural and residential community, as it will involve the cutting of corridors for machinery, road building, drilling and constant movement of motor vehicles in the wilderness.

Peter Bauer, executive director of Protect the Adirondacks, claim that NYCO’s plan is to extend operations from 90 to 132 acres (0.36 to 0.53km2).

“The road building alone in the Jay Mountain Wilderness Area will see the removal of 1,254 trees,” said Bauer, who also protested against APA and DEC’s decision to consider the area as a non-old growth forest.

“This is a forest system that has not been impacted, or impaired by human activities since 1980; we do not feel the environmental baseline information the state has gathered and put forth is adequate,” Bauer said.

In addition, the activists raised legal issues, which were formally expressed in a letter sent by assisting law firm Earthjustice, which said that the DEC and APA subverted existing laws.

“We are very concerned that the DEC might release a temporary permit for mining exploration by-passing the laws prohibiting mining operations in the area,” Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney at Earthjustice, told IM in February.

“The area in Lot 8 has a wilderness designation entitled to the highest level of protection, which is inconsistent with mining operations in the area,” she added.

The opponents claimed that the proposed amendment only authorised mineral exploration on Lot 8, but not further mining activity, which is prevented by the State Land Master Plan’s (SLMP) guidelines.

However, the DEC and APA said that the amendment is based on the implicit repeal of the 2013 constitutional amendment of the SLMP guidelines.

Executive director of the Adirondack Park Local Government Review Board, Fred Monroe, said that the amendment can overcome any other regulations, including the SLMP.

After receiving public comments, the APA and DEC approved the land swap in mid-June this year.

“The statute has been overridden but not completely. It only needs to be overridden to the extent that it’s necessary to carry out the intent of the constitutional amendment, which is to permit the exploratory activity,” APA’s counsel, James Townsend said to the local news service Adirondack Daily Enterprise.

APA State Land Committee chairman, Richard Booth, who admitted the controversial nature of the approval, said that the strategy carried by the DEC’s lawyers made sense.

“I think, given the vote of the public, this is what the public anticipated would happen,” he said.

A spokesperson from APA told IM that sampling operations would begin after a public presentation of the NYCO’s new exploration plan in mid-summer this year.

However, “Additional permits will be needed to guarantee that mining activities will have no adverse environmental impact on the area,” the APA’s spokesperson added.

Brodt told IM that NYCO is committed to abiding by all applicable laws and regulations when moving forward with the land swap process.

Meanwhile, the environmentalist groups are considering whether to continue the battle through the courts.

Commenting on the approval, David Gibson, partner of Adirondack Wild, told Adirondack Daily Enterprise, “Their legal foundation for making these determinations has been swept away. We’ll obviously review our options.”

Canadian Wollastonite starts production

In eastern Ontario, Canadian Wollastonite (CW) experienced similar hostility against its wollastonite project in St Lawrence. The company entered production after an exploration and application process lasting over two decades.

After an initial suspension of the project, following the acquisition of mining leases in 1990, as the deposit was deemed non-core, CW spent 11 years, from 2001 to 2012, bringing the project from exploration to production.

During this time, the company completed a number of tasks, including a five-year comprehensive environmental study, impact assessments and plan amendments for the city of Kingston and the township of Leeds and the Thousands Islands.

The project received the final approval for its project from the Ministry of Northern Development in December 2012 and entered the production stage in 2013, after a two-year delay due to the opposition of its mining operations from local residents.

“The project was approved and ready to advance in 2009, but was held up due to legal appeals of the approvals from a small number of adjacent property owners. These appeals were eventually dismissed in the courts but the delay was a costly set-back,” Bob Vasily, CW’s president, told IM.

In January 2013, Bob Vasily said that the trial plant capacity was of 15,000 tpa wollastonite and 12,000 tpa diopside, a calcium magnesium silicate.

“In 2013 we produced about 6,500 tonnes of wollastonite as well as other ancillary ore products,” Vasily said.

CW said that it is not planning additional explorations, as current resources are about 9m tonnes wollastonite and 30m tonnes of other economic ores, which are able to support mining activities for several generations to come.

“The site is very well located, close to the US border and along major transportation arteries,” Vasily told IM.

CW is confident it will generate profits from two complementary businesses; high aspect ratio (HAR) wollastonite and low-iron diopside as well as performance and speciality aggregates, which are mostly calcium magnesium silicate and orthogneiss.

Orthogneiss is a high strength friction aggregate which finds applications in local markets in skid resistant road surfaces and high performance concrete, without requiring high degrees of beneficiation.

“In the short term, emphasis will be placed on opening the pits and generating cash flow through the mining and selling of performance and speciality aggregates,” Vasily told IM.

“While the deposit is a HAR source, development of a HAR beneficiation plant will require additional skills and capital that we hope to find by way of a cooperation with a more seasoned and experienced firm,” he added.

CW is targeting local markets for the supply of its wollastonite, including cement manufacturing, steel production and the automotive industry, which is the sector driving wollastonite demand in the North American market, according to Vasily.

The company also sees market opportunities for its HAR wollastonite and diopside products in horticulture, agriculture and environmental remediation.

“Our realistic short term focus is on local markets where we have a competitive advantage over the other two North American producers [NYCO Minerals and RT Vanderbilt],” Vasily told IM.

“We are not really competing with either of these two firms for the time being. We are advantaged in that our resource is large and we can find and supply markets that both of these firms would not consider,” he added.

While remaining a niche market, CW sees potential growth for its wollastonite as a single mineral source of Ca, Mg and Si in organic food production and horticulture in North America.

“Growth in the conventional markets, where wollastonite is valued for its morphological properties, will require innovation and R&D,” Vasily said.

Despite facing environmental and legal opposition, CW was finally successful in reaching the production stage.

“In doing so, CW has become the first new industrial minerals mine to be approved in Southern Ontario in 36 years,” Vasily told IM.

*Conversion made June 2014

Incubex Minerals’ exploration in South Africa

South African junior exploration company, Incubex Minerals Ltd, started to develop a wollastonite project near the town of Garies, western South Africa, in January this year.

John Bristow, Incubex’s CEO, told IM that the project is a very initial stage, consisting of trial mining and fine tuning of a small plant that is already on site.

“We are still evaluating the wollastonite resource at Garies but we know it is significant, probably amounting to several millions of tonnes or more,” Bristow told IM.

The company has carried out field mapping at the mine in order to identify high grade portions of the mine.

“We have also made some changes to our small processing plant and will be moving and installing a primary crusher at the mine site to improve the raw product quality that we produce,” Bristow said.

“We have also done test work on the processing plant to optimise the quality of wollastonite material that we will eventually produce,” he added.

Bristow explained that Incubex is reassessing and re-evaluating information from existing drilling operations and mapping data in order to refine the geological model and have a better understanding of the resources at Garies. The company is not planning to do a compliant SAMREC study at the moment.

In terms of logistics and production facilities, Bristow said there is a primary treatment and hand picking plant at the mine as well as a small final processing plant in Garies, where Incubex intends to manufacture its final product.

The company aims to produce 30-40 tpm wollastonite for the first few months of operation and will then step up its capacity to about 100 tpm.

“We will expand this as we grow the local market,” Bristow told IM, adding

that Incubex already shipped very small tonnages and hopes to be in routine production by August of this year.

“The company incurred major costs for the purchase of a small excavator, an articulated dump truck for the mine and a forklift for the processing plant,” Bristow said.

According to Bristow, Incubex is planning to initially spend South African Rand (R) 2m ($186,000*) to bring production capacity to 100 tpm at Garies.

“The company is still developing local markets and aims to make inroads into important replacement markets, such as asbestos,” Bristow said.

“In the near future we will be supplying the local paint industry and selling wollastonite to a ceramics producer of baths, basins and toilets and to the concrete slab industry,” Bristow told IM.

“We are also exploring other markets here in South Africa and in neighbouring countries,” he added.