Selkirk will cash in on copper

The 20-metre high open pit at the Minto copper mine near Pelly Crossing is sliced out of a hillside like a mammoth loaf of bread.

The 20-metre high open pit at the Minto copper mine near Pelly Crossing is sliced out of a hillside like a mammoth loaf of bread.

At first glance the slice reveals beige dirt and rock, but keen eyes quickly focus on a mint-green layer of oxidized malachite that looks like the washed green patina on the copper roofs of Ottawa’s Parliament buildings.

About eight tonnes of ore containing high concentrations of copper are believed to be awaiting miners at Minto.

And with copper selling for $3.45 a pound, as of Tuesday, the natural stockpile is potentially worth more than $60 million.

After nearly 30 years of development by several different companies, Vancouver-based Sherwood Copper will finally push the site into production by the spring of 2007.

“Copper prices are high,” explained Bill Dunn, the general manager of the mine, during a mine tour on Friday.

Selkirk First Nation is poised to benefit from dozens of jobs at the mine on its traditional territory and from royalties from copper taken from the ground.

But social and economic demons lurk in the lining of the mine, and the First Nation must deal with them to come out of the experience healthier and wealthier.

“Of course I see a lot of positive developments — there’s many opportunities,” said Darrin Isaac, Selkirk’s chief, during a mine tour Friday.

“If we had the skill and qualifications in the community, we could have all our people working here,” Isaac said.

“We want to make sure our people have the skills and training to work here.”

Through a co-operation agreement with Sherwood Copper, Selkirk citizens are being given priority for jobs and training at the mine, and a scholarship program has been set up for those interested in further training.

Selkirk is also being offered first crack at contracts for services at the mine.

About 23 citizens from Selkirk and other First Nations are cooking meals and ferrying mine workers, and equipment, across the Yukon River as a result.

Each contract is worth about $70,000 per month, said Dunn, and more are in the pipe.

But a mine with the potential to employ most working-age citizens in Selkirk First Nation with high-paying jobs could have a big impact on the community of Pelly Crossing.

The effects are already beginning to show, said Isaac.

“One of things we’re finding is that we’re losing people within the organization to come work here,” he said.

“It leaves some loopholes back at home for positions to be filled. It also has impacts with people not performing their jobs back at home, because everybody’s here working.

“Who’s going to do the work back at home?” he said.

Counseling services are being created for families and workers.

And a memorandum of understanding signed Friday commits the Yukon government to helping Selkirk cope with the mine.

Environmental impacts are also a concern for Selkirk citizens, but are being dealt with by various government agencies and the First Nation’s lands department, said Isaac.

“I’m not saying it’s good for the environment, but it’s probably a lot better than other mines,” he said, pointing out the Minto mine does not produce acid.

Along with a 27-kilometre access road, excavation and mining damage to the land, Minto Creek will be dammed during the life of the mine.

The relationship between Selkirk and Sherwood Copper is positive, said Pat van Bibber, the First Nation liaison at the mine.

“They were very accommodating to open up all contracts to the First Nation,” he said. “Basically we could choose any jobs that we wanted.”

Jobs at the mine are allowing people to develop their skills for the future, said Daryn Charlie, a Vuntut Gwitchin citizen from Old Crow who works as a camp cook.

“I was camp cooking down south and decided to come home and got a good opportunity here … the Yukon’s my home,” said Charlie.

“The money’s good, the work’s hard, but I enjoy it,” he said.

Charlie’s goal is “to learn as much as I can and eventually excel in something I enjoy doing,” he said.

The Minto Project is worth about $100 million and is expected to produce copper ore for eight-and-a-half years before reclamation and cleanup begin, said Dunn.

“We’re looking at a minimum of another 10 to 12 years of operations at the site with what we’ve got proven now,” he said.

When production is in full gear, about 100 people will be on the mine’s payroll, with 60 at the site at any one time, he said.

The economic future is already looking promising with copper above $3 a pound, with China hungry for minerals, and with future infrastructure projects on the lips of Yukon politicians, said Dunn.

“Port access and the (proposed) rail is huge … but the biggest infrastructure item is the potential for hydro-power to come in,” he said.

“That would have a good impact on our economics, which allows us to mill lower grade ore and would lengthen the life of the overall project.”

In June, The News reported Yukon Energy is examining connecting the Yukon’s two main electrical grids along the North Klondike Highway.

The proposal is estimated to cost more than $30 million, but would help make both Minto and a copper mine at Carmacks more profitable.

Yukon Energy already has a power-purchase agreement with Sherwood Copper.

The company may pay a portion of the construction costs, with the Yukon government contributing about half, said Yukon Energy officials in June.

Diesel generators — “more than twice as expensive” as hydroelectric power — currently power the site, said Dunn.

To mine copper from Minto, workers strip soil and rock above the ore, which is about 100 metres below the original ground surface, said Dunn.

A mill — slated to be opened at the site next year — will then make the exposed ore into a powder that can be shipped through Skagway to smelters in Asia.

The contracts haven’t been finalized, said Dunn.

In the meantime, the push is on at the mine to develop skills and meet the need for workers, he said.

People in trades and with mining experience are those most in demand, said Dunn.

“The problem is, it takes time. You can train up a drill helper fairly quickly, but it takes years to train a skilled operator,” he said.

“We know that there’s not enough people to supply our needs so we’re going to be training people on an ongoing basis.”

Formerly involved at the zinc mine in Faro, Dunn is adamant that First Nations must be involved both in jobs at the mine and potential benefits.

“I firmly believe that the locals should have the opportunity to benefit from any development,” he said.

“We’re committed to give people the opportunity to work here. I’ve gone out of my way to make sure that anybody that has the skills or desire to work here from Selkirk, has the opportunity.”