By Ben Jacklet
A Canadian mining company is gathering permits and underground data in preparation for developing the first large-scale gold mine in Oregon in decades, as the price for gold hovers at $1,600 per ounce.
Calico Resources, based in Vancouver, BC, has purchased an option to buy mineral rights to the Grassy Mountain site south of Vale, in an unpopulated portion of Malheur County. Calico President William Wagener says the rough plan is to spend three years on exploration and then build a 100-employee operation to remove and process 1,000 tons of material per day. He estimates the company would invest $80 million to $100 million in the project, and he insists that no pollution would be left behind.
“We take great pride in being able to design a mine with reclamation in mind, to operate it in an environmentally responsible manner, and then close it and make it pretty,” Wagener says. “We view this as a matter of pride, to do things right.”
A variety of companies including Newmont Mining, the world’s largest mining company, have spent $33 million exploring the area, and drilling over 400 holes. Low gold prices of $250 to $300 per ounce halted exploration there in the 1990s, but gold prices have risen steadily amid the economic uncertainty of recent years. At the current price, the estimated 924,000 ounces of gold at Grassy Mountain are worth $1.3 billion.
The U.S. is the world’s third-largest producer of gold, behind China and Australia. About 80% of domestic gold is mined in large open pits in Nevada, where loose environmental regulations enabled vast exploitation. Gold was big business in Eastern Oregon from the 19th century through the 1950s, but growing unease about pollution has shut down the industry in recent decades.
Wagener says the strong price for gold and improved mining technology would allow Calico to remove Grassy Mountain gold selectively, without creating a huge open pit and contaminated tailings ponds. The company is planning a 150-acre operation, compared to past plans for an 1800-acre footprint.
“Technology has moved on,” says Wagener. “You can do a lot more with smaller stuff than you could before.”
Wagener expects exploration to last about three years, followed by five to eight years of mining (depending on how much gold they find) and an eighteen-month cleanup that would remove all buildings and cap all disturbed areas. Calico has received approval from Oregon’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries but still needs to earn permits from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.