Extending the life of mining in Whitehall, Barrick Gold Corp.-owned Golden Sunlight got the green light Tuesday to mine the Apex, an underground gold mine about three-quarters of a mile from the former open pit.
This new underground mine won’t bring new jobs, said Dan Banghart, Golden Sunlight general manager. But it will extend the life of the approximately 140 positions already at the mining operation. Barrick employs 54. Redpath, a Canadian-based underground mine contractor, makes up the rest.
“It’s a very important extension of our current workforce,” Banghart said.
The open pit, called the Mineral Pit, closed in late 2015 due to the wall’s instability. Although it threw about 135 out of work, Golden Sunlight had “2Bug,” an underground tunnel that weaves like a spider's web behind the walls of the Mineral Pit, up and running within approximately a month. But mining in 2Bug is expected to cease, likely also sometime next year, Banghart said.
So the opening of the Apex couldn't have come at a better time for the mine workers.
There could be some concurrent mining of both tunnels, Banghart said. But the expectation is to be done with 2Bug when Apex is fully up and running.
The new underground tunnel will be due north of the current mine operation.
The Toronto, Canada, based company has been extracting gold ore northeast of Whitehall since 1982. This new permit amendment, which the Department of Environmental Quality approved Tuesday, will extend the life of mining 25 miles east of Butte until 2021. Banghart said there are an estimated 150,000 ounces of gold recoverable in the Apex project. The price of gold is currently around $1,200 per ounce.
Banghart said Golden Sunlight will continue to explore the ore deposit at Apex with the hope that it can continue the life of the mining beyond 2021. Golden Sunlight’s original permit in the 1980s only foresaw the mine to be open for about 10 years.
Tammy Johnson, executive director of Whitehall-based Montana Mining Association, said by phone Tuesday that it’s normal for a mine to keep going long past its original permit. Both Montana Resources’ copper mine in Butte and Golden Sunlight are examples of mines that have been in business decades past their original permitting.
“I’m optimistic that now that they’re getting started, it will lead to a longer-term mining project,” Johnson said. “They’re like the little engine that could. Every time they get close to the life of the mine being over, they find additional resource to mine. That’s been going on for 36 years.”
DEQ’s bond to ensure Golden Sunlight’s closure plan whenever the mine does close is currently set at $147,434,380. The new underground tunnel raises that bond by $808,137, said DEQ officials by email.
DEQ received the surety bond for the increase from Golden Sunlight Monday.
Banghart said by phone Tuesday that the company will begin work immediately to prepare the Apex. Workers will have to do some road building, run water lines to keep equipment cool and dust under control, and establish communication lines for Wi-Fi access. They will also begin cutting out the entrance to the new mine.
The preliminary work will likely keep the miners busy until sometime next summer, Banghart said.
Not until then will Golden Sunlight and Redpath workers be ready to actually fire up the drills to extract gold in the Apex.
The new underground mine will disturb about 2½ acres of surface. The primary entrance to the underground mine will be on Golden Sunlight property but some of the underground mine will drill underneath Bureau of Land Management.
Banghart said new entrances to the mine will surface on BLM land, but those portals will be secured from the public with fencing.
Banghart said the continuation of the mine’s life will enable Golden Sunlight to keep its program processing ore from small miners. That program has brought more than $45 million into the hands of small miners and it is a program of which Banghart is particularly proud. The mine will also continue its ongoing reclamation of waste dumps at Golden Sunlight.
When the mine does shut down for good, Golden Sunlight is expected to build a water treatment plant to pump and treat acidic water out of the old pit. The mine’s reclamation plan does not allow Golden Sunlight to allow water to pool in the pit, Banghart said.
The current underground tunnel has been designed not to go below the water table, so it will not require water treatment.
Tom Harrington, manager of Jefferson County's Local Development Corp., called the extension of mine life in Jefferson County "very good news."
He said Golden Sunlight's nimble-footed steps to keep mining despite the Mineral Pit's closure three years ago has been "good for us."
Banghart said this is a long time coming.
“There were years of background studies, all the dialogue and back and forth discussions with DEQ to optimize what we want to do with what DEQ thinks would be good,” Banghart said. “It’s nice to bring it all to a close.”