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Kemess goes underground to get the gold

Chris Rockingham, vice-president development for AuRico Metals, at the Minerals North conference in Prince George in April. Bill Phillips photo
Chris Rockingham, vice-president development for AuRico Metals, at the Minerals North conference in Prince George in April. Bill Phillips photo

BY BILL PHILLIPS

bill@pgdailynews.ca

When Northgate Minerals wanted to develop a second open pit mine at its Kemess property, it received a tremendous of amount of opposition from the Tse Kay Dene First Nation, which wanted to preserve Amazay Lake.

The Kemess North open pit mine idea was scrapped when a provincial review panel recommended in 2007 the province not approve the mine. A decade later and AuRico Metals, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Kemess, is hoping to get at that ore body. But, rather than strip the land down from the top, a la strip mining, they want to come at it from the bottom, which seems to be more palatable to the Tse Kay Dene.

“Kemess North and First Nations relations was a bitter, acrimonious debate,” AuRico Metals’ vice-president of development, Chris Rockingham told Prince George city council Tuesday. “Ultimately Kemess North as an open pit was turned down. We knew that we had to do this a whole lot better than we did last time. Right from the start First Nations were involved in discussions about the design of infrastructure, the location of infrastructure, this has continued right through the environmental review process.”

The plan now is to come in through the bottom. A tunnel will be drilled through the mountain side north of the old Kemess South pit, which will serve as a tailings dump for the Kemess Underground project.

“There will be three five-metre-by-five-metre tunnels going three-and-a-half kilometres underneath the deposit,” said Rockingham. “We will extract ore from underneath.”

Describing it as “bulk, low-cost mining,” Rockingham said the ore will be mined in vertical columns going up 200 metres from the tunnels. The ore will crumble and fall.

“It will be put on a conveyor belt to the processing plant,” he said. “The tailings go to the pit, the concentrate goes down the road to Mackenzie and gets put on a train to a smelter somewhere in the world, probably Asia or eastern Canada.”

The company has hit a few major milestones in the last month. One of those milestones was the reason for the company officials’ visit to Prince George … to sign the impact benefit agreement with the First Nations affected by the proposed mine.

Another milestone was getting both provincial and federal environmental approval for the project.

“We’re hoping to have all the permitting in place by next year in hopes of making a final decision,” said Chris Richer, AuRico Metals CEO.

One of the benefits, however, is that much of the infrastructure used during the Kemess South mine’s run, from 1998-2011, is still in place. Value of that infrastructure is about $750 million.

The projected lifespan of the Kemess Underground project is 12 years with an estimated value of $400 million. The company is also looking at developing another property east of the current minesite, called Kemess East. It has the $375 million value on a 12-year lifespan, should the company get that off the ground as well.

However, now the company is primarily focusing on Kemess Underground.

“Everything is going to come through Prince George,” said Richter. “We will focus on two centres for employees, Smithers and Prince George. A fair number of employees will live in Prince George.”

The company will open a Prince George office with between six and 12 employees. Once construction starts the workforce will fluctuate between 100 and 400.

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