Mining and exploration review north of the 60th parallel

Northern Star – A Look at Capstone’s Minto Mine

12 - Looking South East at the Capstone Minto Mine

Although new to the position of general manager at Capstone Mining Corporation’s Minto Mine, 240 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, Ron Light is a seasoned mining professional. With 40-years in the business, 20 of those in Arctic regions, he is well equipped to take Minto to the next level.

Day-to-day, he oversees production, safety, administration, human resources and associated costs at the site.

“I am accountable for everything that happens here at Minto,” he explains.

When Capstone acquired the then-dormant, open-pit mine in 2005 and started it up in 2007, it began producing 1,600 tonnes of copper product each day. At that time it was estimated the mine had an eight-year life. Today, the production is 3,600 tonnes daily, and the mine life has stretched to 2022.

“Minto has been very successful for us drill season after drill season,” says Cindy Burnett, vice president of investor relations and communications for Capstone.

This success was recently heralded by Prime Minister Stephen Harper during a visit to the facility.

There have been nine discoveries over the last six-years at the mine; further exploration is anticipated to reap benefits and extend the mine life even longer. Advances in technology help explore multiple holes in tandem and deeper holes at higher resolution; high-tech scanners take 3-dimensional shapes of the pit each day, cutting back on detailed surveying time.

Product is retrieved from the ground in the form of ore which is then concentrated – it is 40 per cent copper at this point; the rest is gold, silver and waste — and trucked from the site across the Yukon River (in the summer, on a barge; in the winter over an ice bridge) to Skagway, Alaska. There it is shipped to Asia, where it is turned into finished copper and used for electronics and in the construction industry. The gold and silver byproducts are then extracted and credited back.

Minto is a small to medium-sized mine relative to world standards (Chile produces 30 per cent of the world’s copper, for example). Its remote location is on First Nations’ land with the closest town being the Selkirk Settlement community of Pelly Crossing.

“The relationship with the community is paramount,” adds Burnett.

Capstone leases the land from the community and pays royalties to the both the local nation and territory.

The mine’s 300 staff consist of truck drivers and engineers, mill personnel and safety experts, geologists, mine planners, and support staff. They live at the mine in a self-contained camp and are primarily on a two-week in, two-week out rotation; 26 per cent are First Nations’ personnel and 100 per cent are Canadian. Light enjoys the diversity of the team at Minto; there are workers (20 per cent of which are women) with oil sands and diamond mining backgrounds, with maintenance experience, and who are fresh out of university. But they have a common goal.

“It is a team that wants to see success,” he says. “Everyone is pitching in.”

Next up for the Minto location includes the development of an underground component to its mining operations.  A contractor has been hired to begin the process. Capstone will take over operations, likely in a year’s time. Ultimately, it will be a split between open-pit and underground mining, says Light.

“My job in the next year is to bring underground production in sync with open-pit in a safe and cost-effective manner.”

Also the camp itself will be converted into a modern, three-story modular structure with more spacious and efficient room for staff. The kitchen has a current capacity of 80 people; it will be renovated to accommodate the ever-growing staff component. Cost for both upgrades will be upwards of $7 million.

Along with those priority plans will be the hiring of 50 additional staff, an increase in workers with First Nations’ backgrounds and training for the unique dynamics and procedures associated with underground work, some of which will be provided by nearby Yukon College.

A recruitment strategy will also encourage people to relocate to the north. Light has been working in far-away areas for most of his career. He has a home in Ottawa; his wife and grandchildren visit him and he visits back. “It takes a while to get used to working away from home. You do develop a ‘mining family.’ But some people find it a real struggle.”

Living and working in the north, with your family, can make the adjustment a bit easier. Whitehorse, for example, is a good community for a growing family. There are superior educational facilities for children as well as a decent transportation infrastructure, a bevy of outdoor activities to choose from and a variety of shopping venues. There is also a sizeable French Canadian community there. Capstone is working with government agencies and other area mining companies to attract employees to the Yukon.

As opposed to a “fly in/fly out” environment, having staff live in their own homes with their loved ones will improve workers’ life balance, allow for more scheduling flexibility and provide a more streamlined operational process overall.

Despite sometimes frigid temperatures, the mine operates 12 months of the year.

“We don’t shut down for the cold,” notes Light.

Cabs are enclosed and heated; the underground will contain propane heaters to keep the environment at a comfortable temperature. All personnel are outfitted with weather-appropriate equipment and gear, from winterized coveralls to warm hoodies, and fleece vests.

If the temperatures drop below – 40 degrees C or if snow squalls mean visibility is low and safety is compromised, the mine temporarily halts production. Light budgets for a few “blizzard” days per year.

“Mining has become a much safer practice,” he says. Survey scans can tell where there is rock movement before the human eye or ear can detect anything. There are better dust control, collection, and wet mining procedures so workers are not exposed to the accumulated risks of yesteryear.

Mining has its up-and-down cycles, like any commodity-related industry. And working up north is not for the faint of heart. But Capstone’s assets are in secure and politically-stable environments, the company is investing in both their sites and personnel and new hires to the Minto location can consider other company venues down the road.

“Capstone is a growing company with financial resources and opportunities,” states Burnett. “It is an exciting place to be.”

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