Mine Developers Optimistic About Prospects

The annual Southeast Conference kicked off in Craig this week with a morning dedicated to mining.

Representatives of area mining interests spoke back-to-back to about 200 conference participants.

Two potential mines on Prince of Wales Island remain in development, but both are promising enough that owners intend to submit preliminary economic assessment plans within the next couple of months.

Geologist Randy MacGillivray spoke about the Bokan Mountain rare earth exploration project. He says they’ve taken about 20 tons of material for testing, and have developed a three-dimensional digital model of the underground mine.

MacGillivray describes rare earth elements as “space age” metals, used in green technology and in the defense industry. For example, he says a single hybrid car uses about 33 pounds of rare earth elements.

He says a preliminary economic assessment of the mine is due out soon.

“This is a rough look at the project from an economic standpoint, using the information we know now, plus or minus 40 percent,” he says.

A more detailed feasibility study will follow if results look good.

MacGillivray says that once in operation, the mine is expected to produce about 1,500 tons per day. About 200 workers would be employed at the mine, with a two-week-on, two-week-off work rotation.

Processing would take place on site. The initial process would involve crushing the extracted rock and screening the crushed material with X-rays to determine which rock fragments include the desired mineral. An air jet would blow waste rock into a disposal bin.

MacGillivray says the mineral-containing rock then would be processed using chemicals to extract the minerals.

“We’ve done three tons of material through the X-ray sorter already, and we’re anticipating about a 50 percent split. So we mine 1,500 tons a day, but we only have to mill 750 tons a day,” he says.

He says waste rock will fill empty shafts, avoiding the need for a surface tailings facility.

Pat Smith is a geologist with Heatherdale Resources, which owns the Niblack Mine exploration project on Prince of Wales. He says that underground mine will produce four metals. In order of production value, they are copper, gold, zinc and silver.

Smith says that while he can’t predict for certain how much the mine will produce, they can provide estimates. He says it appears that about 9 million tons of material might be extractable.

The Niblack mine is near tidewater, which Smith says is an excellent location. He says getting people and supplies to the mine is relatively simple, and once they start production, they can easily ship the raw material out by barge.

The mine will employ about 130 people. An additional 65 employees will be needed at the processing site, which the business anticipates will be in Ketchikan.

The most likely site right now is the old Seley sawmill site on Gravina Island. Smith says it makes sense to process the ore close to Ketchikan, where electricity costs less and employees can go home each night

“We’re looking at this, we’re doing investigations, as to whether or not it would be suitable for what we’re talking about,” he says. “We’re still quite a ways from knowing that or selecting it as our only alternative. But it’s a very good alternative.”

Niblack officials hope to obtain permits by 2014, and start construction by 2015.

Mike Bell, mine training program director for the University of Alaska Southeast, also spoke. He says that program trains new miners and provides required safety refresher courses for mine employees.

Bell says the state is not ready yet for the projected labor needs of the mining industry. The Department of Labor has estimated that 5,000 trained mining workers will be needed in the next five years. Other studies show even more potential jobs in that industry, although one projects a number closer to 4,000 new mining jobs.

“However you look at it, it’s a lot of people that we need in that mining industry,” Bell says. “Where are we going to come up with them?”

He says few college students look toward mining as an occupation, and that should change.

Also presenting Tuesday were Jan Trigg of Coeur Alaska’s Kensington gold mine, and Ron Plantz of the Hecla Greens Creek mine. Both of those mines are close to Juneau, and represent the two largest private employers for that community.

Southeast Conference formed in 1958 to advocate for the establishment of the Alaska Marine Highway System. The organization of Southeast Alaska communities and business interests has expanded its mission since then, and now is a regional, nonprofit corporation that focuses on issues of general interest to Southeast Alaska.

The group meets annually, each year in a different Southeast community. The three-day conference started Tuesday. Other presentations on the agenda focus on logging, maritime and mariculture, healthcare and energy.