A mineral exploration team’s open house at the Ken Kunkel Community Center turned into a grassroots protest Saturday as more than 100 people packed the outdoor pavilion, waved signs and shouted objections to mining development plans at Ester Dome and in the Tanana Valley.
Chanting “We don’t want a mine!” and “Leave!,” the overflow crowd expressed frustration during a public forum with developers Millrock Resources of Canada and Felix Gold Alaska, which are conducting early exploration activities for gold.
The future of a favorite expanse of rolling, wooded hills in greater Fairbanks pits the companies prospecting for gold against neighbors determined to stop the activities.
“What would it take for you to back off, to not build a mine on the land?” asked a homeowner during the three-hour meeting with the companies’ officials.
“I can’t answer that,” said Dave Larimer, vice president for exploration at Felix Gold Alaska. “My job is to do this,” Larimer said, pointing to a laminated poster identifying gold exploration sites where geologists are taking core samples and doing discovery work.
The Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, a state agency, has plans to lease more than 10,000 acres to Felix Gold Alaska, a subsidiary of Felix Gold Limited of Australia.
The sites are in the areas of Ester Dome, Murphy Dome, Cleary Summit and Fox. While they are located in a historic mining district, the forested sites have long been lookouts and trails for Fairbanks area residents. They also are a growing rural suburb of single family homes, small farms and mom and pop businesses.
People who live, work, hike and ski in the areas impacted came to the community center Saturday for what was billed on social media as a meet-and-greet hosted by the developers. Larimer said he hoped to find a middle ground with residents. Residents insisted that they want the exploration activities to end.
‘The economic viability of a project’
“We love to create value,” Larimer said, as he stood with representatives from Millrock Resources, a publicly traded Canadian company that is a partner in the venture. “Our job is to look at the economic viability of a project. We have to understand what’s there.”
Residents told company officials they were trying to get a better understanding of plans by Felix Gold and Millrock for the three identified sites where there are mining claims.
The Ester Dome property is off Henderson and Ester Dome roads. Other sites span thousands of acres south of Murphy Dome Road; forested land on Cleary Summit and Pedro Dome; and a property off the Elliott Highway north of Fox.
Neighbors of Ester Dome recently put out the call for volunteers to organize residents who against mineral exploration and mining.
The grassroots Ester Dome Alliance Team said on social media: “We have been overwhelmed with responses from people opposed to this exploration and future mine. We are getting a lot of interest from community members hoping to volunteer or assist in some capacity.”
More than 500 written comments
More than 500 people expressed their views in writing to the Mental Health Trust Authority, a state agency that is the land owner and planning to lease 10,200 acres to Felix Gold for mineral exploration and potential mining.
The Trust Land Office is in the process of reviewing 558 written public comments received by a July 30 deadline on a proposed mineral exploration lease.
“At this time we are reviewing those comments, so are currently within our deliberative process,” Allison Biastock, chief communications officer at the trust authority, said prior to Saturday’s open house.
She could not provide a date on when all the comments would be reviewed.
The authority’s director will decide whether to approve, deny or change the lease based on the findings. Under the terms of the lease, Felix Gold would be granted the right to “mine, extract, remove and sell locatable minerals.”
'Discoveries are made with the drill bit'
“While there is a lot of advance work to do, such as the recently completed airborne geophysical survey, discoveries are made with the drill bit,” said Millrock Resources President and CEO Greg Beischer on the company website, about extensive plans for the Fairbanks Mining District.
Beischer was at Saturday’s public forum at the Ken Kunkel Center. "Millrock is not funding the exploration work; Felix Gold is doing that," Beischer told the News-Miner after the meeting. "We put together the package of mineral rights by making agreements with long-standing Fairbanks companies and prospectors and by staking mineral claims on unappropriated state of Alaska land.
"Millrock is providing the technical staff, equipment and logistical support, but the [exploration] program is funded, operated and directed by Felix Gold with Dave Larimer at the helm," Beischer said.
Millrock will keep its Anchorage office but is increasingly active in Fairbanks and the Interior.
"We have a great office, shop [and] yard on Davis Road that we are sharing with Felix Gold. Millrock is active at several projects in central Alaska, so this is a great base for our company," Beischer said.
Early stages of planning
Millrock and Felix Gold appear to be in the early stages of planning for the project, based on their activities, said Dr. Tathagata Ghosh, who chairs the Department of Mining and Geological Engineers at University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Mineral exploration and mining require long-term assessment, development and investment that may span decades, said Ghosh, who outlined the phases of mineral exploration in a phone interview with the News-Miner.
Initial planning involves a feasibility study based on core sampling. “There are so many projects that look good on paper. Then once they do exploration, it kind of fizzles out. On the other hand, they may say: We need a mine here,” said Ghosh, who said that he was speaking in general terms and without direct knowledge of the project.
The amount of ore deposits needs to justify a mining investment. “The whole operation has to make economic sense,” he said. “The company will look at data and results and get their engineers and consultants together to decide whether they want to go in.”
A company’s feasibility study also may cover the type of mine proposed, surface or underground. A surface mine is commonly known as an open pit or industrial mine.
Nearly 70 percent of mines in the United States are “surface deposits,” he said. Fort Knox is a surface mine. The Pogo Mine is underground. Both are in the Fairbanks Mining District. But surface mining is not recommended beyond a certain depth because of the expense.
"With a surface mine, the company has “to remove the entire overburden of the ground cover and side cover to get to the ore body,” Ghosh said. “If the costs of removing the overburden become equal to or more to the mineral you are producing, then it makes no sense.”
Surface mines are more common these days, because of the scale and the production rate the surface mines can provide, Ghosh said. Underground mining has additional regulations to protect worker safety.
“Underground mining deals with lots of other things like ground support and rock mechanics, so the mine does not collapse. For surface, it is on a larger scale and a little less expensive,” Ghosh said.
“Pogo Mine is underground but production is not too high,” Ghosh said. “Fort Knox is huge at 2,000 tons per hour. Production scale is completely different. Both are gold mines and both are in Fairbanks.”
In response to questions Saturday from residents, Larimer said Felix Gold Alaska has private investors whom he declined to identify.
Larimer also indicated that Felix Gold Alaska, partnering with Millrock Resources, could seek out a third-party investor after the initial exploration work is done.