Premier Christy Clark was touting the expansion of Huckleberry Mines and the benefits for Smithers at the Northwest Resource Forum in Prince George last week.
“The North really is the beating heart of our economy,” Clark said at a press conference Thursday prior to delivering the keynote address to the ninth annual B.C. Resource Forum.
The expansion will begin in 2012 and the mine will pay about $254.4 million in wages and benefits to its employees over its lifetime. Another $119 million will be spent on new acquisitions and $82 million will go towards dam construction.
Workers at Huckleberry Mine will be digging until at least 2021.
Imperial Metals confirmed before Clark’s address in Prince George that Huckleberry will extend its mine life now that it has a revised Mines Act permit to expand a tailings pond and dig for deeper copper reserves.
Going deeper means Huckleberry will hire 70 new full-time staff, from mill workers to engineers. The expansion also secures jobs for 230 existing employees and 30 contractors.
Patrick McAndless, Imperial’s vice president of exploration, said strong copper prices have helped Imperial to promote the plan among shareholders.
So long as prices stay high, McAndless said they will likely seek out new mineral deposits in nearby areas such as Whiting Creek.
“There’s nothing planned right now, but that’s certainly one that’s in the back of our minds,” McAndless said. “If we get some decent cash flow going, I’m hopeful that at some point we can address some of the unfinished business at Whiting Creek.”
Byng Giraud, Imperial’s vice president of corporate affairs, said the company already hired loggers to clear the area where Huckleberry’s expanded tailings pond will go.
“Cheslatta Carrier Nation did the clearing work for the tailings facility,” he said, adding that the company signed agreements with both the Cheslatta Carrier Nation and the Wet’suwe’ten that offer employment and contracting opportunities.
Contracts to build earth works at Huckleberry have also gone out already. In a press release, Imperial Metals said it expects to spend $82 million on a new dam for the Huckleberry tailings pond.
While Huckleberry may see other expansions in the future, so far it seems likely that the mine will stick with open-pit rather than underground excavation.
“For now, given the grades, open-pit is certainly more feasible,” said McAndless. Going underground is so costly, he said, that it typically requires copper grades of at least two per cent to turn a profit. Estimates show grades at Huckleberry of about 0.3 per cent.
Huckleberry Mine is co-owned by Vancouver-based Imperial Metals and a consortium of four Japanese investment companies.
From 2014 to 2021, Huckleberry is expected to produce 424 million pounds of copper. From start-up in 1997 until the end of 2010, the mine produced 870 million pounds of copper as well as eight million pounds of molybdenum, 3.4 million ounces of silver and 105,000 ounces of gold.
Huckleberry operates on a mining lease covering about 1,900 hectares on a site 123 km south of Houston. The company holds 37 mineral claims on a further 19,300 hectares.
– Files from DeLynda Pilon, Prince George Free Press