Highland executive talks mining

HANCOCK – A Highland Copper Co. executive spoke about his company’s mining exploration during a Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance meeting Wednesday.

The company owns property in Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties. It has also entered into an agreement to buy the Copperwood project in Gogebic County.

Ross Grunwald, vice president of exploration for Highland, said product from Copperwood and the Gratiot site in Keweenaw County would be brought to White Pine, which has an existing copper refinery. The Gratiot material would be brought in either by truck or barge, Grunwald said after the meeting. The location of a port for the barge has not been determined, Grunwald said.

Highland is drilling and resampling the core at White Pine to validate the historical resource base, Grunwald said. Highland will start a preliminary feasibility study of the integrated complex, including White Pine and Copperwood deposits. That is expected to be completed by the end of the year. It would be followed by a feasibility study on the integrated operation by late 2015, which would have accuracy of plus or minus 10 percent.

Highland will also study the environmental and social impact before moving to permitting.

“We think that we like this area because it’s an integrated approach,” Grunwald said. “It reduces costs.”

Grunwald estimated after the meeting it would take about four years to begin mining, depending on how the feasibility study goes. He anticipated a mine life of about 30 years.

“It could be two, three times as long, depending on what develops with resources going forward,” he said.

Grunwald said companies now also have to prepare a community impact program going 20 years beyond the mine’s closure on what kind of industries it will foster, as well as reclamation.

“You’re not going to leave a ghost town behind,” he said.

Highland has 23 employees in the Keweenaw. That number could be reduced in the short term, although he said it could rise to as much as 1,000 if the mines become operational.

“It’s going to be a substantial operation,” he said.

Houghton County Mine Inspector Murray Gillis said there would also be a spinoff of about three jobs created in the community for each mining job.

Grunwald said his objective is to use local workers as much as possible. Because the equipment will be new, he said, there will have to be extensive training.

“Even a miner who’s familiar with the old way of doing things might not be appropriate,” he said.

Grunwald said instead of smelting, they were looking at a different process with fewer environmental effects.

Grunwald said Highland is looking at ways to recover copper metal in Michigan rather than shipping concentrates out of the country.

If material has to be shipped out to be processed, Grunwald said, it would have to be done by rail. The closest smelter that would be suitable is in Quebec, requiring transit on the CN rail from Sault Ste. Marie. Grunwald said Highland is asking the Natural Resources Commission to delay a proposal converting a 13-mile stretch of rail from Rockland to Ontonagon to trails until Highland can complete its studies.

While the White Pine site will have shaft mining, Grunwald said it isn’t decided yet whether the Keweenaw site will be shaft or surface mining.

Grunwald said Highland had looked at Michigan for factors including geologic qualities, government support of mining investments, infrastructure, the presence of Michigan Technological University and a clearly defined permitting process, which he said helps to “weed out bad actors.”

Gillis, also a Michigan Technological University faculty member and consultant for Highland, said of 14,700 mines and 1.5 million workers, there were 35 fatalities a year, which he said makes it one of the safest industries.

“That’s just a tremendous record,” he said. “We’re very proud of it.”