Turning nickel into sand RIDDLE, OREGON — There’s a rumble coming from the foot of Nickel Mountain again, but it’s not a resurrection of the old mining plant. Instead, it’s the clanging sound of transition — the dismantling of the former Hanna Nickel Mine smelter, a rusting vestige of the only nickel mine in the United States. The razing of that post-World War II relic is clearing the way for another company to ratchet up its growth in the same location.The company is Green Diamond Sand Products. Where Hannah Nickel once heaped mounds of cast-off slag, just 100 yards down from the smelter, Green Diamond officials see a mountain of possibilities — coming from the many uses for sand. But first the 100-foot-tall smelter, which once employed more than 300 workers, must be cleared out. Green Diamond will keep several old silos on the property for its own product storage.”There is much more storage (at the smelter site) than what we currently have” at the current Green Diamond processing headquarters, five miles away near downtown Riddle, Art Schweizer, company president, said. GROWING GREEN DIAMONDGreen Diamond got its start as a sister company of Glenbrook Nickel — processing the slag into abrasives and other uses — when Glenbrook operated the mine. Five years ago, Schweizer and Barry Zeigler, Green Diamond vice president, bought the 600-acre Green Diamond headquarters and processing plant from Teck Cominco Metals. Cominco, a Canadian firm, operated the mine under the Glenbrook Nickel name from 1989 to 1998. In January 2003, Green Diamond bought another 600-acre chunk — this time the smelter and slag property below the mountain — for $750,000, positioning the company for a cost-saving consolidation. Green Diamond, owned by ARDEN Inc., a partnership of Schweizer and Zeigler, makes more than 40 sand-related products. The products are used for a variety of purposes, including road surfacing, ball field drainage, roofing, foundry moldings and sand-blasting operations.”That’s the end of an era,” Schweizer said from a truck while giving a visitor a look at the smelter and mountain of slag. “This place operated about 40-ought years, and a lot of people worked there. It had a tremendous significance for the community here.”Zeigler said, “Anyone who’s 40 or older knows somebody who worked here, supplied (the mine), had something to do with it.”Schweizer added, “I guess what we hope to be is the phoenix rising out of the ashes with Green Diamond.”STARTS WITH WASHGreen Diamond currently has 47 workers, double its payroll of five years ago. Employees, mostly in manufacturing positions, make about $15 per hour, plus benefits.Among the first workers to deal with the nickel processing byproduct are the washers, who use water to break apart the byproduct next to the slag mountain. “You break it apart to put it back together,” Zeigler said. The sand — fine, medium and coarse — is blended to be used for the various end-products processed at Green Diamond’s plant.”You’ve got to maintain a picture-perfect, quality controlled product — starting here,” Zeigler said.For Green Diamond, the first step in its next phase of growth is moving its processing and administrative complex five miles away, near downtown Riddle, to the hill and the 12 million tons of smelter byproduct.”It only makes sense to come up here and operate next to the pile, rather than have two split operations,” which requires trucking the material down from the sand mountain, Schweizer said. “We can grow up here.”Green Diamond hired a Schnitzer Steel crew from Eugene to do the smelter tear-down. Work began about two weeks ago, and the dismantling, followed by rail transport of some 4,000 to 5,000 tons of scrap metal, is expected to take about six months, Schweizer said.”I think the neat thing is it’s going to an Oregon mill, because right now a lot of the scrap is going offshore,” where it’s commanding high prices, he said.CONTINGENT ON CLEANUP Green Diamond waited until last year to buy the smelter site because, after Cominco ceased operations, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality identified 23 sites on the mine property where contamination might be found. The property purchase, which includes several other buildings that will be torn down along with the smelter, was contingent upon Teck Cominco addressing all of the environmental concerns.Schweizer, a metallurgic engineer who worked for Cominco for 21 years before forming his company, said the reclamation job Cominco did on the mountain is one of the best he’s seen.”You can’t hardly tell there was a mine up there,” he said.The former mine site, closer to the top of Nickel Mountain, was sold by Cominco to Barnes & Associates, a Roseburg forest management company.Green Diamond, which sells 150,000 to 200,000 tons of product a year — the biggest volume in cheap sealant for roads — has about 30 years of sand byproduct reserves to draw upon, Schweizer said. That’s a “normal reserve for a natural resource-based company,” he added.The company is currently installing a laboratory, which will be part of its research and development department. Green Diamond hopes to create new products by bringing in another material, such as clay, and adding it to the processed nickel byproduct.”If we can develop value-added products, that opens up a whole new market for us,” said Schweizer, who works primarily out of Green Diamond’s transport-load center, where product is transferred from rail to trucks, in the Portland area.He noted the company plans to develop more high-performance abrasives — very fine granules — that can be sold into new markets. After chip sealants, Green Diamond’s largest-volume sellers are roofing materials, abrasives and foundry sands.In the latter category, Green Diamond has achieved some notoriety. Green Diamond sand has characteristics allowing an easier release from metals, making it attractive to foundries, where metal such as cast iron is cast in sand, Schweizer said. Metal tree grates for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, embossed with the Olympics rings, were cast using nickel byproduct from Riddle.As for chip sealants, “We supply Douglas County with about 99 percent of their chip seal needs, so if you’re driving down a county road, you’re driving on a Green Diamond product,” Zeigler said.Jim Alberding, operations and maintenance division manager for the county Public Works Department, said the county can buy the product from Green Diamond for about $4 a ton; buying it at a rock quarry site would cost about $8 a ton.”There’s a lot of it there,” at the Riddle site, Alberding said, “and it’s mine slag. It’s a very durable material.”Like its resource base, Green Diamond plans to be a durable south county employer. So far, nobody’s getting rich from the company, Schweizer said, adding, “We’re reinvesting everything that we’re doing down here.” The consolidation to Nickel Mountain, which will cost $1 million to $2 million, will take about two years. The current 600-acre headquarters site will probably be sold off, he said, adding, “We’ll see. We haven’t made the final determination on that.”Whether Green Diamond will triple its payroll in five years will depend on many variables, Schweizer said, but growth is definitely the plan.”We’re a small company trying to develop within our means,” he said.By: CHRIS CASEY
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