Atlas to reopen mine in Palawan amid recovery in nickel prices

By Neil Jerome C. Morales, BusinessWorld

Posted at Feb 15 2010 10:41 AM | Updated as of Feb 15 2010 06:41 PM

MANILA, Philippines - Listed Atlas Consolidated Mining and Development Corp. is looking at reopening its nickel mine in Southern Luzon this year to take advantage of the recovery in nickel prices, company executives said.

The miner is also studying the feasibility of putting up a processing plant to add value to the nickel ores they sell.

“I think they are going to resume soon ... the interest in nickel is starting [to go up] again,” Atlas Consolidated Chairman Alfredo C. Ramos said in an interview.

“Hopefully we will be mining again soon,” he said.

In February last year, the publicly listed miner closed the Berong nickel mine in Palawan, laying off more than 600 workers and retaining only 50 employees, due to low metal prices as a result of soft demand.

Prices of nickel -- a key ingredient in steel-making and one of the country’s main mineral exports -- rose to $8.13 per pound late last week, from $6.00 per pound in the first quarter of last year, data from the London Metal Exchange showed.

Mr. Ramos said that if Berong Nickel Corp. resumed operations, the miner would still ship nickel ores to traditional markets like Japan, South Korea and China.

Berong Nickel is a joint venture composed of European Nickel Plc, Atlas Consolidated, and Toledo Mining Corp., which is listed in London.

In 2008, Berong Nickel’s nickel shipment dropped by a tenth to 476,850 metric tones (MT) of nickel ore from 2007 levels. Berong Nickel has a supply agreement with BHP Billiton, the world’s largest miner, for the shipment of 500,000 MT of nickel ore per year until 2013.

Furthermore, Atlas Consolidated will study the viability of putting up a nickel processing plant.

“Our ambition is not only to be mining nickel ore but also processing metal ore so we can have value-added product,” Martin C. Buckingham, executive vice-president and chief finance officer of Atlas Consolidated, said in a phone interview.

The Berong Nickel mine, which is the world’s fourth-largest nickel laterite resource, still has about 275 million MT of nickel ores ready to be extracted, Mr. Buckingham said.

A nickel processing plant will mean a significant investment for the miner. For instance, the proposed processing plant of listed Century Peak Metals Holdings Corp. in Dinagat Island will cost P2 billion to P3 billion while Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. Ltd. Asia will invest a total of $2.257 billion for a nickel processing plant in Surigao del Norte.

For Atlas Consolidated to build the processing plant, Mr. Buckingham said: “We may end up having strategic partners.”

Furthermore, Atlas Consolidated and European Nickel might share technical information in the construction of a processing plant, he added.

Separately, Berong Nickel shareholder European Nickel had decided to merge with Australia’s Rusina Mining NL to be able to spend $498 million for a nickel leach plant at the Acoje mine in Zambales.