Golden Hope For a Timmins, Ontario Wasteland – by Nick Stewart

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. This article was published in the January, 2011 issue.

Goldcorp Inc. is just months away from making a production decision to dig up the literal “heart of gold” a stone’s throw from downtown Timmins. 

The Vancouver-based producer is working fervently through the winter months to build a case for a series of open pit mines at the very centre of the historic mining community, potentially making Timmins a unique portrait of modern mining in Ontario.

The project will carve out a patch of land just south of Highway 101, the main drag along which most of the city’s major commercial activity is located. The 250-acre property is surrounded by a pharmacy, a fast food outlet, a hotel, the Shania Twain Centre, the Gold Mine Tour and residential suburbs on two sides. The downtown core is across the street to the west.

This large area is the site of the shuttered but still treacherous underground Hollinger Mine, closed in 1968. Its hundreds of miles of tunnels have plagued the community with sinkholes and subsidences, creating a restricted wasteland and resulting in millions in property damage.

By mining out the area, Goldcorp stands to not only tap into the abandoned riches beneath the soil, but also to later transform it into safe, usable land. Like the issues surrounding the property itself, the new mining project is rife with logistical challenges, not the least of which involves determining what was left in the ground following nearly a century of mining.

To that end, Goldcorp has spent $28 million drilling more than 900 holes between 2005 and 2008 alone, and several million more since.

“It was certainly not your typical drilling job,” said Ken Tylee, senior exploration geologist, Goldcorp. “We were drilling literally feet away from tourist attractions like the Shania Twain centre, and literally just off people’s backyard fences.”

This posed some unique problems for the company, not only in terms of mitigating noise and exhaust from the rigs, but also in finding on more than one occasion that equipment would “disappear overnight.” Overhead lines could obstruct the rigs, while buried fibreoptic and gas lines were often buried nearby.

This past summer, Goldcorp drilled off roughly 280 holes for more than 15,000 metres with diamond drills and reverse circulation drills to get a better sense of the gold veins’ orientation.

Historic production of the ore body was done at a time where gold was worth $25 per ounce, meaning that work and exploration was done primarily from the larger, main portions of the vein, rather than the offshoots. The latter are part of Goldcorp’s focus as it looks to breathe new life into Hollinger.

All the drilling needed to make a production decision is now complete, and no more will be done until a positive production decision has been made, likely early this spring. If approved, construction work will begin in 2012.

The company is now in the final stages of submitting permit applications to the government, including the permit to take water, and the certificate of approval – “the stickiest of the applications we need to put into the government agencies,” said Tylee.

Forestry crews are in the process of mapping out the exact route of the mine’s 5.5-kilometre haul road, which will stretch from the site to the company’s Dome mill. The height and value of the trees are being measured in anticipation of beginning cutting operations through the winter months.

The eventual shape of the mining operation will involve three or four open pits, each at 500 to 600 feet deep. They will be ringed by a 60-foot-high sloped berm made of waste rock, which will be covered in soil and then hydroseeded.

A 300-metre buffer zone will be established between the berm and its neighbors.

Manpower and the fleet of 150-ton trucks formerly used at the now-closed Pamour site will be shifted to the new open pit operation.

Once mining is complete, the pits will be filled and grassed over. A man-made contoured lake will be created, then handed over to the city for public use.

Currently, contracts are being put out for companies to tear down and salvage the old workings and various items scattered around the property, which has been used as a sort of “dumping ground” through the 1970s and 80s before sinkholes forced workers away.

It’s this exact safety concern that’s sparking the large-scale mining project, as decades of underground mining in the Timmins camp left the workings susceptible to sinkholes.

Filling them currently costs Goldcorp $200,000 to $250,000 a year, leaving a patch of prime downtown real estate that can never be used until these workings are dealt with.

“If we don’t do anything right now, we’re going to be paying $250,000 a year forever,” said Tylee. “My kids will never be able to set foot on that land, and we have to do the closure anyway, so we’ll go in, we’ll mine it with the consent of the public, and try not to be disruptive. We’ll mine it for seven or eight years, contour things and hand the land over, and it’ll be a place our grandkids can go to rather than forever being a brownfields area.”

It’s this vision that draws great enthusiasm from municipal leaders, including Mayor Tom Laughren, who said the “exciting” project brings any number of economic and social benefits to the community, not the least of which includes sustaining its workforce and providing feed to the mill.

More importantly, he said, it will take a massively problematic area that has been all but wasteland for nearly 30 years and turn it into something that will have real quality-of-life value for residents.

“From a city perspective, we’re looking forward to it,” said Laughren. “We see this as a real opportunity, even from a recreation perspective, with trails and a lake to result from the pit work at the end.”

Laughren says his optimism for the project is shared by the majority of residents, who have been kept in the loop through frequent public open houses.

“We’re looking for total transparency,” said Tylee, who says much of the team is now on a first-name basis with municipal officials.

It’s an approach that rings true to Laughren, who hailed the company’s efforts to reach out not just to his government but also to the people through regular communication and consultation.

“They’ve been a model corporate citizen, and if anybody’s doing this project, I’m glad it’s Goldcorp.”