'Against all odds': Historic deposit brought together international interests

The Ajax File: All That Glitters - Part 1 of 5

Cam Fortems / Kamloops Daily News
July 26, 2011 01:00 AM

Experts say the best place to explore for a new mine is beside an old one. The Ajax mine development is proposed for a site originally worked by Teck Cominco in the 1980s and 1990s.

Copper!

Shouting the name doesn't conjure images of instant riches. Consumers have never lined up at bullion shops for a chance to stash it in a safe when prices reached an all-time high.

But for the B.C. Interior, which has a rich history of both gold and copper discovery, the base metal is the one driving massive economic investments. And none is so physically close as the joint venture by a Vancouver junior exploration company and a giant Polish firm hoping to make its first successful international venture.

Together, KGHM Polska Miedz S.A. and Abacus Mining and Development Corp. are seeking to bring the Ajax copper mine to production in B.C., in the footsteps of two other nearby mines: Copper Mountain in Princeton as well as Ajax's Kamloops neighbour, New Afton.

The venture is the latest in a list of companies, geologists and prospectors who have created wealth for a century from the Iron Mask Batholith. The story of the rich rock, part of a much larger area of mineralization known as the Quesnel Trench, started 200 million years ago.

"The Kamloops region was being assembled from large geological pieces that included still simmering volcanic islands, scraps of ocean floor and the bulldozing, westbound, North American continent," said Bruce Madu, regional geologist for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources.

"All these processes brought to the surface the metals that we can explore for and extract using relatively simple open pit mining methods."

The first work on the Ajax claim began in 1905. Exploration work started in the area during the 1880s.

In total, five pits scar the region south of the city, home to three ranches and species that include blue-listed spadefoots and the rubber boa. That exploration has led to production at Ajax east and west pits, Pothook, Crescent and Afton pits.

The area is also home to Petersen Creek, which was moved once in the past to permit mine development. Ajax officials say they will again alter the creek's path as part of the development.

The proposal has garnered enthusiasm from business and mining interests in the city.

"It's going to be a wonderful story for Kamloops," said Jim Gillis, a mining promoter who once headed a company that drilled in the same area.

In the late '90s, copper prices plunged to as low as 67 cents. Today copper is above $4 a pound, bringing extended life to Highland Valley Copper, underground development at New Afton and the proposal for Ajax.

The old saying among prospectors is that the best place to explore for a new mine is beside an old mine.

Production on the neighbouring open pit Afton claim began in 1989 by Teck Resources Ltd., providing several hundred jobs on and off until 1997, when production ceased entirely. New Gold Inc. is expected to start production next year on a high-grade copper-gold deposit underground at the New Afton claim.

Abacus was largely overlooked for a decade as neighbouring New Afton received the bulk of money and interest.

"Abacus has been extremely persistent," Gillis said. "It's almost against-all-odds."

The company, said the promoter, continued to raise millions over the past seven years "to drill the begeewhiz out of it.

"They kept drilling and the truth machine came out for them."

Both projects rely on similar geology, but New Afton has much higher grades of copper. Both share an increasingly important gold component.

Development at Ajax is similar to Highland Valley Copper, another low-grade deposit about twice as large as its Kamloops cousin.

Madu said large volumes of ore and waste rock must be mined for these deposits to be economically viable, a choreographed movement of "trucks, shovels, ore, waste rock and process tailings.

"Effectively moving ore and waste occurs all day, every day of the year to keep the operation charged and functional."

While the project may be small on a worldwide scale, it is nonetheless a large deposit when viewed by its proximity to Kamloops - about 1.5 kilometres from the north rock dump, the closest part of the mine to Aberdeen and Pineview Valley.

That proximity and scale triggered full environmental reviews under both provincial and federal governments, which are working together but will render independent decisions on whether the project should be given a green light.

Kamloops is no longer desperate for jobs and economic development - unlike 15 years ago when community leaders pressured provincial politicians to allow prime farmland beside Kamloops Lake to be developed into a resort.

The city's economy has diversified and relies less on traditional forestry and mining.

The Ajax proposal has been cheered by business interests. But City Hall and many residents remain wary. Grave concerns have been expressed about living within two kilometres of a 24-hour-a-day industrial activity that has the potential to poison water, alter fragile geology at Aberdeen, threaten real estate values and undermine ranching that has co-existing with mining for a century.

There are also concerns about loss of Jacko Lake - directly beside the enlarged pit - where generations of anglers have fought with the famed Kamloops trout.

Ultimately it is politicians, including Kamloops' Terry Lake, B.C.'s environment minister, who will have the final say on whether dust, vibration, noise and pollution can co-exist beside a city with a vibrant economy that is less reliant on resource extraction and instead is promoting sports tourism and higher education as the future.


© Kamloops Daily News

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