CALUMET - The Keweenaw Copper Company is seeking mineral rights leases to explore for minerals on more than 4,000 acres of state land in Gogebic, Houghton and Keweenaw counties, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
Keweenaw Copper already controls more than 9,000 acres of mineral rights in the area and has signed a letter of intent with the Copper Range Company to buy the White Pine Mine.
Employees are examining and permitting land for mining. None of this guarantees future mining, though, said Ross Grunwald, Keweenaw Copper vice president and project manager, but he added the company is optimistic.
Keweenaw Copper Company geologists Anthony Geglio, left, and Andrew Reed examine core samples at the company’s lab in Kearsarge. (Houghton Daily Mining Gazette photo by Dan Roblee)
"You have to start with what you know and then go into the unknown," he said. "We know there's a lot of copper up here and we have to focus on that first."
The efforts are part of Canadian parent company Highland Copper's Keweenaw Project, which began with creating subsidiary Keweenaw Copper and then acquiring land, assaying core samples and handling permitting and business issues.
According to the company's web site, Highland committed to spending $11.5 million on the project by October 2015, as 65 percent owner of the project. BRP LLC owns the other 35 percent.
Grunwald said Keweenaw Copper employs 23 full-time employees, as well as a handful of consultants. Many of them, largely geologists, work drilling and examining core samples at the company's lab near the historic Centennial No. 6 shaft in Kearsarge.
The lab handles the samples from all of Keweenaw Copper's sites, three undeveloped sites on the Keweenaw Peninsula and one near Ironwood, as well as those that will be taken at White Pine.
During the exploratory stage theere is little environmental impact, according to Keweenaw Copper environment and community engagement manager Raymond Govus. He said drills are mounted on trucks or other vehicles, creating no need for permanent structures or destroying vegetation.
If the undeveloped sites are chosen for mining, Grunwald said each mine would likely cost a minimum of $100 million to develop. He said reopening White Pine would cost $300 million to $400 million for new facilities, or $10 million to $20 million for a smaller project using existing facilities.
The White Pine mine is potentially closer to operation, but any decision to begin production is still down the road.
"It's dangerous to make estimates," Govus said. "It's a jigsaw puzzle with a lot of pieces to put together."
He said despite the mine's relatively recent operation, the company must still validate its reserves before moving forward.
"We're going to be commissioning a feasibility study to see if it's economical to mine," he said.
Developing a new site, like those possibly on the Keweenaw would take longer, Govus said, noting that the Eagle Mine in Marquette County will take about seven years to start production.
As a better-developed site, White Pine operations could begin within two or three years, Grunwald said. Any start time further off than five years would likely make it a venture not worth pursuing for Highland.
And while Grunwald said the letter of intent to buy White Pine should lead to an interim closing within the next few of months, the final closing wouldn't come until late in 2015 after a feasibility study.
Grunwald said Keweenaw Copper's crews have drilled and examined about 140,000 feet of core samples since 2012 at a cost of about $50 a foot.