Hardrock exploration resumes after pandemic pause

Hardrock exploration activity continues to build at some mining camps across the state as companies get back to work delayed for months by the pandemic.

Tectonic Metals started drilling its Tibbs gold prospect not far to the east of the producing underground Pogo mine in the Interior July 20, company CEO Tony Reda wrote via email.

The rotary air blast drilling program is first looking to expand on a discovery last year of a 29-meter seam containing more than 6 grams of gold per metric ton of ore.

Reda said Tectonic has a thorough COVID-19 mitigation plan in place at its camps and company leaders are excited to learn more about their prospects.

“Given our strong treasury in conjunction with the compelling targets and the untapped potential at our Tibbs and Seventymile projects, the Tectonic team has unanimously concluded that we must move forward with two drill programs this summer,” Reda said. “The truth machine is currently hard at work at our Tibbs project following up on last year’s intercept of roughly six grams per tonne over 29 meters.”

Reda said in April that it was unclear at that point whether or not the drilling could be done this year.

He added that two other targets will be drilled at Tibbs before work moves east to the Vancouver-based company’s Seventymile prospect near the Canadian border.

Drilling at each of the near-surface prospects will cumulatively cover roughly 2,500 meters, with an average bore length of about 100 meters, according to Tectonic.

The drilling will be company’s first at Seventymile, a 149,000-acre property owned by Doyon Ltd., the Interior regional Alaska Native corporation.

Doyon announced in late April that it had invested $1.5 million in Tectonic, which has rights to four early-stage exploration properties in the Interior. The investment made Doyon the largest single shareholder in Tectonic with a 22 percent stake in the company.

As of July 10 there were 69 active applications for hardrock exploration across the state, according to Department of Natural Resources officials, who noted that not all of the applications indicate active field work this summer.

Placer miners also held 837 active operations permits and another 90 suction dredge operations have active mining permits as well.

Hardrock exploration had been on the upswing prior to 2020 with estimates of about $150 million annually spent by companies searching for metals across Alaska in recent years.

Department officials reported anecdotally through field inspections that higher gold prices have encouraged more placer and suction dredge activity though some operations have been idled because of travel restrictions and funding challenges, according to an email from DNR spokesman Dan Saddler.

Gold prices have risen steadily over the past year to more than $1,800 per ounce.

Donlin Gold temporarily suspended work and sent approximately 120 workers home from its remote upper Kuskowkim valley camp in early April as the company formulated a plan to address health and safety risks stemming from COVID-19. Workers began returning to the camp May 22 following implementation of COVID-19 mitigation strategies.

Constantine Metal Resources is conducting a scaled-back $2.1 million field program at its multi-metal Palmer prospect north of Haines this summer as travel restrictions and health concerns limited exploration activity early in the year, according to a company statement.

Constantine is focusing on gathering environmental data and other information to aid in permitting future underground exploration. Dowa Metals and Mining, Constantine’s partner in Palmer through Constantine Mining LLC Joint Venture, will be funding this summer’s work and take a slightly larger stake in the project as a result, according to Constantine.

President Garfield MacVeigh said in a statement about the work program that despite the shorter-than-anticipated work schedule and other challenges from the pandemic the joint venture continues to make progress towards underground exploration and feasibility studies.

“We also continue to be excited about the exploration potential on both the (Palmer) property as well as the immediately surrounding district controlled 100 percent by Constantine,” MacVeigh said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation last fall remanded a water discharge permit key to Constantine’s plan to excavate a roughly 1.2-mile tunnel from which the company could conduct exploration activities for review by the Division of Water following appeals from local environmental groups and others.

They claim the waste management permit for groundwater discharges is insufficient because the wastewater will quickly resurface in nearby Glacier Creek, which feeds the salmon-producing Klehini and Chilkat rivers.

The development includes a large water treatment facility with two settling ponds in addition to the exploration tunnel.

DEC officials have yet to make a decision on Constantine’s waste management permit and while staff are working on it there is no timetable for a resolution, according to DEC spokeswoman Laura Achee.

The permit decision is also in flux partly due to a U.S. Supreme Court case over wastewater treatment in Hawai’i between the County of Maui and the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund. In April the court issued a middle-ground opinion remanding that case back to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for further consideration.

There will be less activity in the western Brooks Range this summer as Trilogy Metals announced earlier this month that it would be deferring its summer exploration program at its Upper Kobuk mineral projects in the Ambler mining district.

The company said in a July 8 statement that the combination of ongoing safety concerns regarding the possible spread of the coronavirus at its remote camps and the fact that the field work had already been significantly delayed its entire 2020 field season had been called off.

Trilogy and its partner, Australian-based South32 Ltd. fund the exploration projects through their joint venture Ambler Metals LLC.

Trilogy holds the Arctic copper-zinc and precious metals deposit, which is the most advanced prospect in the region as well as the nearby Bornite copper-cobalt prospect and other early-stage properties in the area.

The company expects to complete a feasibility study on the Arctic prospect later this summer.

A record of decision on the Ambler Mining Industrial Access Project, most commonly known as the Ambler road, is expected from the Bureau of Land Management this summer as well.

The road is being pursued by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and has been met with strong opposition from many locals and others who are skeptical of the private industrial toll road concept.

However, state officials insist the plan will provide access to one of the state’s premier mineral belts while also allowing the state to recover development costs through tolls.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/22/2020 - 9:41am