Capstone Mining Corporation’s Minto copper mine could soon be seeing a whole lot more digging.
The Yukon Socio-Economic Assessment Board has recommended the government approve three new open pits and two new underground mines at the site.
The company has been waiting since January for permits to expand to those new areas, when it halved its production and laid off 44 workers because it was running out of permitted ore to mine.
Now that it’s one step closer to getting those permits, company spokeswoman Cindy Burnett said that will hopefully mean bringing back the laid-off workers.
“We basically will run out of permitted open-pit ore by August. We need these permits in place to move on to the next deposit,” she said.
The layoffs were a way to keep the mine from shutting down entirely, Burnett explained. By moving to half its full production, the company was able to keep the mining operations running through the winter. If it kept going at full capacity, it would have run out of permitted ore much sooner, and would have had to shut down in the middle of the winter.
“That would have been really tough, especially with the heavy equipment. You’ve got to keep those big trucks turning over all winter or they freeze up,” she said.
The Yukon government and the Selkirk First Nation - on whose territory Minto sits - now have 30 days to review the decision and decide whether to grant the quartz mining and water permits needed for the expansion to go ahead.
The copper mine sits nearly 30 kilometres from the North Klondike Highway, down a dusty gravel road on the west side of the Yukon River near Pelly Crossing.
If the company doesn’t get the permits it needs before it runs out of mineable ore in August, the mining operations will shut down completely but the mill will continue to process stockpiled ore, she said.
Assuming it does, the company’s first target will be a deposit called Minto North, Burnett said.
“As soon as we get to Minto North, we’ll be back with a vengeance,” Burnett said.
It’s located on the northern edge of the property, and will be the company’s next open pit operation. There are currently two open pits on the site. When the southern pit is mined out sometime in August, it will be used to store water while the company shifts its sights to the north.
When the company cut production in January, it dropped from 10,900 cubic metres a day to 5,000. If the permits get approved, they’ll aim to jump up to 15,000 cubic metres and re-hire all the laid-off staff.
The focus will be on open-pit mining, Burnett said, because it’s cheaper to access than the underground deposits, and current copper prices aren’t high enough to justify running the mine’s mill with underground ore.
Right now copper prices are hovering around $3.07 per pound.
Minto didn’t turn a profit at all in 2013, but Burnett said that the deposit under Minto North should help them get back into the black, especially if the prices stay where they are.
“It’s 18 months worth of 2.25 per cent copper at around $3 per pound,” she said. That, plus the stockpile the company currently has, is enough to keep the mill running for the foreseeable future. Once Minto North is mined out, the company will move on to looking at its underground workings again, Burnett said.
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