Natural Resource Development
two men pointing to informational board in hallway
Judy Patrick | Hecla
Major Mines in 2023
Updates from Alaska’s large operators
By Sarah Reynolds Westin
A

laska Business caught up with representatives from companies that run three of the state’s six large mines and a seventh just beginning operations to talk about recent advances and potential challenges: Coeur Alaska Kensington Mine, Hecla Mining Company Greens Creek Mine, Kinross Gold Fort Knox Mine, and Manh Choh, a joint venture of Kinross Gold and Contango ORE. The following excerpts from the interviews have been edited lightly for house style and length.

Contango ORE
Alaska Business: Contango ORE shares ownership of the newly operating Manh Choh Mine with Kinross Gold. How did this venture came about?

Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse, President and CEO, Contango ORE: Contango representatives were invited by the Tetlin tribal council, an Alaska Native village, to look at their privately-owned land, which is 675,000 to 743,000 acres—about the size of Rhode Island. They were the only Interior village that opted to take the title to their land, which was originally granted in the ‘20s by the [US] Bureau of Indian Affairs.

At first, we evaluated Tetlin’s land for oil and gas, which showed mostly high-grade metamorphic rocks. There was no chance of any oil or gas deposits, but there was a chance for minerals. So in 2008, we began mineral exploration. In 2011, we discovered the source that is now known as the Manh Choh Mine. For years, though, further development was on hold while companies evaluated how best to advance the project. Finally, in September 2020, we signed a 70/30 joint venture with Kinross. The project could proceed by using the existing mill and tailings facility at Fort Knox to process the Manh Choh ore.

Since then, we’ve stayed on track and on budget. In fact, like you mentioned, our mine opening ceremonies just occurred, so now Manh Choh is Alaska’s seventh large operating mine. We are pre-stripping waste material and stockpiling ore, which will later be transported to Fort Knox for processing. When all is said and done, the joint venture will produce a little less than 1 million ounces of gold over a five-year period, based on current reserves.

“Because Alaska’s permitting process is so thorough, it attracts more mining companies to Alaska, which surprises some people. The world needs the minerals our state has, and Alaska offers a place to develop them where human rights and environmental concerns are valued.”
Brenna Schaake
External Affairs Supervisor
Kinross Alaska
AB: Has Manh Choh had any permitting hurdles?

Van Nieuwenhuyse: The mine site required improving an 18-mile access road so it would have a 6 percent grade to provide year-round access for trucks to transport the ore to Fairbanks. Those road improvements required what is known as a 404 Wetlands Permit, issued by the US Army Corps of Engineers. We received that permit late last year, and road construction started. Mine operating and wastewater permits were issued earlier this year by the State of Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Natural Resources. I believe Kinross had a solid approach to mine development. So overall things went well, permitting-wise.

AB: Do you foresee other mining opportunities coming soon?

Van Nieuwenhuyse: Contango has several other early-stage exploration projects in Alaska—all right along the road system because we want to stay close to infrastructure. Our most advanced project is Lucky Shot, which is located about 40 miles north of Wasilla.

AB: Lucky Shot has a unique history. Would you please elaborate on it?

Van Nieuwenhuyse: It was historically mined from 1928 until 1942, when President Roosevelt issued an administrative order to shut down all gold mines during World War II… So it didn’t shut down because it ran out of ore or had technical issues, which means plenty of high-grade ore has just been sitting there.

Now, we’re drilling straight down the vein where the old miners left off. Importantly, Lucky Shot is a fully permitted underground mine, which provides access for underground and surface drilling. However, we are not currently producing ore or gold. We’re simply exploring to define resources.

Kinross Gold
AB: Kinross Alaska operates Fort Knox Mine for Kinross Gold while also starting up Manh Choh. What permitting challenges have you had?

Brenna Schaake, External Affairs Supervisor, Kinross Alaska: The number one permitting hurdle any permittee faces is environmental compliance with current permits and making sure to diligently maintain them. Alaska has very strict environmental laws and permit requirements that must be met in order to operate in this state.

AB: How does Kinross address the permitting requirements?

Schaake: Kinross has built a culture of environmental compliance, and it starts with our management and rolls down to every employee and business we work with. We always ask ourselves, “Are we going above and beyond?” Basically, we see our efforts as top-tier environmentalism.

AB: How does a rigorous permitting process help mining companies?

Schaake: Because Alaska’s permitting process is so thorough, it attracts more mining companies to Alaska, which surprises some people. The world needs the minerals our state has, and Alaska offers a place to develop them where human rights and environmental concerns are valued. Kinross considers those factors before entering any location, and Alaska evaluates companies’ compliance when they review permitting, operations, and production plans. So these permitting processes actually help everyone.

AB: What about obstacles related to operations at both mines?

Schaake: Well, different factors play a role there. Every project is unique, based on the location and the community’s values. For Kinross, our approach is always informed by how we’re going to be good neighbors. We put people first and celebrate good corporate citizenship, and we think about our legacy. To understand our impact, we look at how we’re communicating with the community and responding to their questions so we can make our projects operational successes. We don’t see community engagement as an obstacle. We see it as necessary and valuable to actively pursue.

two men in mines wearing safety gear
Hecla recently received permitting for an expansion project at Greens Creek Mine and is now working with the community to provide information and address concerns.

Colella Digital | Hecla

AB: How does Kinross evolve the Fort Knox and Manh Choh Mines alongside permitting and operation requirements?

Schaake: Kinross will continue staying robust with our permitting and operation processes, which is positive for states, like Alaska, that value its land, resources, and people and wants to continue protecting and responsibly developing all three. We know that Alaska is going to continue and hold us to a high standard, which is good not only for those who live there but for other places in the world. When we carefully mine needed minerals, we meet demand and deter unsafe mining ventures.

AB: Can you tell me how reclamation impacts Kinross’ exploration, discovery, and production in Alaska?

Schaake: Alaska rightfully values reclamation, and so do we. One of our goals is to restore abandoned mines, here in Alaska and other places too. In this state, we partnered with Trout Unlimited to form the Alaska Abandoned Mine Restoration Initiative. The fact that our state values reclamation helped Kinross come to the table. Yes, we want to extract minerals, but we will only do it if we’re making sure we’re restoring land for generations to come—and that’s true for our project, obviously, but historical ones also. The environment is a top priority.

Coeur Alaska
AB: What complications has Kensington Mine faced for discovery, permitting, operations, and production?

Stephen Ball, General Manager, Coeur Alaska: Alaska has a long history of exploration, mining, and production, and we are proud to be a responsible contributor to the mining industry. The state and the mining companies who operate in Alaska have extraordinary processes for permitting and operations, including top tier environmental mitigation and safety precautions. Our primary core value at Coeur Alaska is “We protect our people, places, and planet.” We want to be showcased for how we do mining right. Being able to operate responsibly within the Tongass National Forest on 243 acres of undisturbed land speaks to our rigor and commitment to environmental stewardship.

AB: Many people don’t understand the lengths mining companies have to go to receive approval for their permits. What has Coeur Alaska experienced in this regard?

Ball: We have permits from seventeen agencies—including federal, state, and local authorities—and every agency’s permitting process must be followed. A mining company cannot advance unless every agency gives the green light. For instance, Coeur Alaska received a Record of Decision from the US Forest Service in February 2022 for our Plan of Operations Amendment 1, which granted us permission to add approximately ten more years of waste rock and tailing storage capacity. That decision wasn’t the end of the permitting process, but was a major milestone as many other regulatory agencies factor the US Forest Services’ decision into their own permitting process. Once we received the decision from the US Forest Service and the US Army Corps of Engineers, we submitted the remaining state permits. We are working through the process on one final remaining permit for a specific action, but the others have all been granted.

To put it into perspective, we began our baseline studies for the Plan of Operations Amendment 1 in 2015. So it takes a lot of time, longer than many people expect. For instance, the land where Kensington Mine now operates was acquired in 1987, and it took twenty-three years before production commenced. It wasn’t until the US Supreme Court issued its ruling in 2010 that we were able to advance our mining operations and production.

“The mining industry as a whole has a lot of past transgressions, but mining companies like ours are doing the best we can to avoid new transgressions.”
Kyle Beebe, Technical Services Manager, Hecla Mining Company
AB: Do you see any changes coming for permitting processes?

Ball: There’s a potential for change in state- and federal-level permitting. People on both sides of the aisle agree changes to streamline the processes need to happen, and those changes can occur while preserving the integrity of environmental protection and regulation. State and federal agencies are facing staffing shortages, which lead to permitting delays. Consistency in timelines is important for any project, mining or otherwise. Science doesn’t have a biased approach; however, changes in mining policy from one federal administration to the next can create uncertainty that needs to be factored into business planning.

AB: Any final thoughts?

Ball: The mining industry supplies the essential minerals necessary for nearly every sector of our economy, from healthcare to infrastructure to clean energy and national security. The US mining industry also is one of the safest and most environmentally responsible mining industry in the world. The demand for critical minerals is only growing as technology evolves; mining will be instrumental in our transition to green energy—and wouldn’t you want resource development to occur in an area that has one of the highest levels of environmental protection and worker safety regulations in place? That’s why I think mining should happen right here, in our backyard, where we know that we’re doing it right.

Hecla Mining Company
AB: Hecla has special permission to mine silver from the Admiralty Island National Monument. What are some recent permitting issues at Greens Creek Mine?

Kyle Beebe, Technical Services Manager, Hecla Mining Company: We just received permitting for the expansion of a facility two months ago, and now our challenges are related to public perception. Specific applications raise different concerns, like creating airborne dust, causing contamination, or spilling materials—and these ones are always brought up with any expansion or production project. Typically permitting involves samples. Water, air, and ground impacts. Cleared timber. Stuff like that. But everything goes through all the right agencies before receiving approval.

“Mining companies want to get the right projects in place. We understand some ventures cannot move forward—they need a ‘no’ because they’re unsafe, short-sighted, risky, or impractical. Science doesn’t have a biased approach.”
Stephen Ball
General Manager
Coeur Alaska
We are always looking as far out as we can about what solid evidence we need to provide for permitting and evaluating whether or not we really have a grasp on what our impact will be. We don’t know all the answers, and we don’t have a magic ball that lets us see the other side of production. So we produce our best estimate, based off what we know we have, and then we ask for a little extra so we can see where we could go next and know whether it’s feasible.

AB: How would you respond to criticisms that come with being in the mining industry?

Beebe: The mining industry as a whole has a lot of past transgressions, but mining companies like ours are doing the best we can to avoid new transgressions. Of course, there is no way to control everything, and there are unknowns about what we can do and will happen. But what we can do is identify what could happen, find solutions, and then be ready to improvise.

AB: Is Hecla looking into any new Alaska mining ventures?

Beebe: Based on our understanding of the geological structures we work with and the mineralization, there are good chances nearby deposits exist. The question is, are they adjacent, findable, accessible? Extending a mine is easier and safer, when you already have a presence, than trying to start somewhere new.

AB: Any last words?

Beebe: Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter what recycling technologies are produced. We’ll never get to a place where everything is recyclable. Everything just eventually wears out. Certain necessary minerals and materials oxidize, rust, wear away, and are dispersed back into the environment. They’re finite resources, and we can’t just get more. Sure, if we wait millions of years, the formation of new deposits being produced by the earth will happen. So now, we need to maximize what we have access to, and that requires more permitting.