Mount Polley copper mine in British Columbia ramping up to restart this spring

Workers at Mount Polley. Image courtesy of Imperial Metals

Hundreds of workers who worked at the Mount Polley copper mine near Williams Lake in British Columbia are being recalled and new ones being recruited, as the mine ramps up for a spring restart, buoyed by high copper prices.

And once Mount Polley is making money again, Imperial Metals (TSX:III) may consider restarting its long-idled Huckleberry mine.

“We’ll look at Huckleberry as soon as we get this running properly,” Imperial Metals CEO Brian Kynoch told BIV News.

Mount Polley was shut down in 2014, after a massive tailings pond collapse. The company rebuilt the tailings pond and spent more than C$70 million in environmental rehabilitation, most of which was focused on restoring Hazeltine Creek, which flows into Quesnel Lake.

The company was able to restart the mine in 2016, but then shut down again in 2019, after copper prices fell below $3 per pound, which is what the company needed at the time to make a profit on the mine.

It had also put its Huckleberry copper mine near Houston, B.C. into care and maintenance in 2016. Imperial Metals’ only revenue since 2019 has come from its 30% share of the Red Chris mine.

Copper prices nearly dipped below $2 per pound in March 2020, with the beginning of a global pandemic. But by October 2020, copper cracked the $3 per pound mark, then $4 per pound in February 2021, and continues a major rally.

Copper is now priced at about $4.70 per pound. Some analysts predict base metals – especially copper and nickel — are in another supercycle, fueled by a recovering global economy, under-investment in new copper mines and an energy transition that demands a huge amount of copper for things like electric cars.

Roughly 100 workers have been on the job for a few months now at Mount Polley’s Springer pit — first removing water then pre-stripping waste rock to expose ore bodies — and preparing the processing mill for a restart.

“We’re targeting having 1 million tonnes of ore in stockpiles when we start,” Kynoch said.

He expects to restart the mill next month. By May or June, Kynoch expects the mine will employ roughly 350 people. Kynoch hopes most of the workers will come from local communities like Williams Lake and Likely.

“We’re really trying hard to hire locals,” Kynoch said. “We’re hoping to get lots of the people we had there before back. And I think we’ll have to do some training and bring some new people on and train them up.”

The company continues to do exploration in the area to try to extend the life of the mine, which has only a few years left of proven resources.

On the regulatory front, Imperial Metals is seeking a water discharge permit extension for the water in its rebuilt tailings pond. The water is first settled and then treated, if necessary, and then discharged into Quesnel Lake via an outfall pipe.

The original permit, which was based on the mine continuing to operate through 2022, expires in December.

“It had that end date because if we kept mining straight through, the mine would be closing (by the end of 2022),” Kynoch said. “We had to shut down because of the low prices. We still want to mine, so we want an extension to the discharge permit that we currently have.”

The only water that has been collecting in the tailings pond since 2019 has been from precipitation.

Asked when he thought the company might be thinking of restarting the Huckleberry mine near Houston, B.C., Kynoch said: “Give me a year to get Mount Polley up and running, and then we’ll move our focus over.”

(This article first appeared in Business in Vancouver)