Wolverine claws its way into production

Sixty-five metres beneath the ground, as water drips from the ceiling and heavy machinery rumbles past, geologist Laura Battison reaches out and pulls a hunk of rock from the wall.

Sixty-five metres beneath the ground, as water drips from the ceiling and heavy machinery rumbles past, geologist Laura Battison reaches out and pulls a hunk of rock from the wall.

“This is a bad sign,” says Battison.

“And that’s some of our better rock.”

Mining this lead, zinc and silver deposit 180 kilometres southeast of Ross River isn’t going to be easy, which explains why Yukon Zinc Corporation has had to coat the tunnel with copious amount of mesh-strengthened concrete.

There’s also a giant, staple-gun like vehicle nearby used to fire metre-long spikes into the roof for reinforcement.

All this allows dwarf front-end loaders, built squat and compact to operate underground, to scoop up mineral rich ore and haul it to the surface.

It’s wet. Miners here wear rainslickers.

Ducts run along the tunnel’s roof, drawing in fresh air from the surface and pumping stale air out.

This is widely expected to be Yukon’s next hardrock mine.

It is fully financed and permitted. By mid-2010, it should begin producing 1,700 tonnes of ore—rich in zinc and silver—daily. The mine should employ about 160 workers and operate for at least 10 years.

That would make the mine a bigger employer than Minto, which is currently Yukon’s only operating hardrock mine.

A global recession may seem like a strange time to build a mine. But chief operating officer Ray Mah would disagree.

Building materials are cheaper now that commodity prices have tanked. And skilled labour is easier to recruit in an economic slump.

True: zinc prices have tanked as well, compared against their peak of $2/pound two years ago. But the metal’s value has bounced from a trough of below 50 cents per pound last year to above 70 cents today.

That’s above the mine’s break-even point of between 50 and 60 cents per pound, according to Mah.

The big challenge faced by most mining companies now is obtaining financing to build their sites. But that’s no problem for Mah.

He hasn’t needed to beg banks for money since his company was gobbled by two big Chinese firms in July 2008.

“It’s still a Canadian company,” he says. “The shareholders are just different.”

The mine is attractive to China because the rapidly-developing country is the world’s biggest steel-maker, and zinc is a crucial ingredient to prevent steel from corroding.

The mine’s rich silver reserves help, too.

The mine has proven reserves of 583,000 tonnes of ore, including 241.9 grams per tonne of silver. This silver grade is “definitely at the high end of the scale,” says Mike Burke with the Yukon Geological Survey.

The ore also contains selenium, a chemical that was once considered a liability because of its toxicity, but is now seen as a perk because it’s found an industrial use in tinting windows.

Beneath the ground, work moves slowly. A day’s worth of digging only extends the tunnel by two metres.

In all, they plan burrow more than two kilometres of tunnels.

Above ground, there will soon be a building frenzy.

Already a 205-person camp has been assembled from trailers. This day, workers are propping up one end of a block of connected portables with planks of wood. Frost heaves caused one end of the camp to sink.

The site is already connected by a 26-kilometre all-weather road to the Robert Campbell Highway. The ore will be trucked to Stewart, BC, loaded on freighters and shipped to Asia.

But much of the industrial complex remains to be built. A big pile of dirt sits where a mill will soon stand. The building is to be enclosed before freeze-up.

At the height of construction, about 250 workers will be on site.

Currently, there are about 105. Of them, about 70 are Yukoners, 26 are aboriginal.

The mine is on Kaska land. The First Nation has struck a deal with the company to ensure its members receive jobs and contracts.

Much of the mine’s waste tailings will mixed with cement so it forms the consistency of toothpaste and then pumped back into the ground, plugging mine shafts exhausted of ore. Then a new shaft will be sunk.

This technique is called drift and fill.

The remaining tailings will be held in a series of ponds for treatment.

Work on the mine truly began “a couple hundred million years ago,” explains Battison, the geologist.

Then, this part of the Yukon was covered by a shallow ocean and an underground volcano puffed away, coating the seafloor with ash.

When this ash mineralized, it prevented the heat beneath from escaping. Layers of rock underneath baked, creating the precious minerals soon to be mined.

Contact John Thompson at