Salvaging a lost year of Alaska exploration
DNR developing COVID-19 guidance for mineral explorers, placer miners hoping not to miss out on 2020 field season North of 60 Mining News – May 1, 2020
Last updated 9/26/2020 at 1pm
2020 is shaping up to be the best year for Alaska's mineral exploration sector in a decade – that was the message delivered by North of 60 Mining News in January. Now, just four months and one COVID-19 pandemic later, the aspirations of a banner year for the companies unlocking the Last Frontier's vast mineral potential are distant and likely unachievable.
While some mineral exploration companies will be able to carry out their 2020 programs as anticipated, restrictions to "flatten the curve" on the spread of COVID-19 disrupted several winter drill programs and some junior exploration companies are looking at reducing, delaying, or even shelving their summer projects in Alaska this year.
Alaska Department of Natural Resources, with input from Alaska mining leaders, is working to develop mandates and guidelines aimed at ensuring placer gold miners and mineral exploration companies are able to salvage as much of the rapidly approaching 2020 field season as possible while minimizing the risk of spreading COVID-19 in Alaska communities.
For those companies wanting to move ahead with mineral exploration or placer gold mining this year, extra preparation, precautions and planning are going to be key.
With these three Ps, the very nature of placer gold mining and mineral exploration could be advantageous – a camp in the middle of nowhere is the ultimate in group social distancing.
Winter drilling idles down
You know it is shaping up to be a good year for mineral exploration in Alaska when multiple projects have drills turning during the winter months – 2020 is one of those years.
The spread of the novel coronavirus, however, caused exploration and development companies to pump the brakes on winter programs.
A 22,000-meter drill program at the 39-million-ounce Donlin Gold mine project is one of the 2020 drill programs that got off to an early start but was cut short due to COVID-19 concerns.
Donlin Gold LLC – a 50-50 joint venture formed between Novagold Resources Inc. and Barrick Gold Corp. – to advance the world-class gold mine project in Southwest Alaska – have plans to carry out an 80-hole drill program this year to validate new geological models and test potential extensions of high-grade zones.
The drill program, which would be the largest at Donlin in 12 years, got underway before COVID-19 was escalated to pandemic levels. Being cognizant of the growing health risks of this highly contagious coronavirus strain, Donlin Gold was quick to implement protocols to protect employees and communities.
These early measures included:
• Screening all employees and contractors visiting Donlin prior to arrival and periodically during their stay.
• Evaluation of anyone showing symptoms of illness to determine if they need to be isolated and evacuated from site.
• Increased housekeeping staff and sanitization practices.
• Regularly conducting safety meetings designed to address sound hygiene and sanitization practices.
• Requesting all employees to monitor their health and consult the site medic if feeling any symptoms of illness.
As the health crisis escalated, and mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19 become more restrictive, including a "shelter in place order" issued by Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy in late March, Donlin Gold decided to idle down the drills until the threat has subsided.
"As an additional precautionary measure and to align with the state of Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, travel restrictions and other COVID-19 measures in the region, we will temporarily pause the drill program and reduce activities to care and maintenance until it is safe for our employees and contractors to return to site." Novagold Resources President Greg Lang said on April 1.
The shelter in place order also prompted crews at the 64North gold project near the Pogo Mine and the Estelle gold project in the Alaska Range to idle down winter programs so that drillers could get home to families in uncertain times.
Drilling recently resumed at Estelle, and there are plans to restart programs at 64North and Donlin this summer.
Novagold, however, told Mining News that there are challenges to consider before the JV will re-open the Donlin Gold camp.
"Safety is the greatest concern, as the workforce can be easily distracted during such events which increases the risks of accident and when mistakes can occur," Novagold Resources Investor Relations Manager Jason Mercier penned in an email. "We're committed to providing an environment in which all of our people make it home safe each and every day."
Another aspect to Donlin Gold, a company renowned for its local workforce and community outreach programs, is maintaining strong relationships with stakeholder around this world-class gold mine project that is on the cusp of development.
"It would be difficult to re-open without local villages being open for travel," Mercier said.
"Coming out the other side, the logistics around moving the workforce will be a big challenge for the industry given the remote nature of most operations and how qualified employees typically work on a rotation schedule and travel a fair amount to get to work," he added.
DNR guidance coming
Travel and the related interactions between out-of-state, large Alaska city and rural workers is one of the primary concerns being addressed in a guidance Alaska DNR is drafting for mineral exploration and placer gold mining.
While these guidelines had not been finalized at the time of this writing, COVID-19 mandates and travel restrictions already in place in Alaska are expected to play a large role in shaping the guidance.
These state mandates include a required 14-day quarantine for all workers coming to Alaska from outside the state.
Some exploration and placer mining companies are looking at the potential of flying out of state crews directly to site for quarantine, others are looking at potential offsite locations such as a hotel to put them up. The advantage to onsite quarantine is that work could be carried out during the 14-day period. Maintaining a quarantine area in a camp setting, however, poses its own set of challenges.
Alaska Miners Association strongly advises those who deem their placer mine or mineral exploration camp as their place of quarantine to plan accordingly. As out of state workers are mandated to go straight to their quarantine site, advanced purchases of supplies delivered to that location will be necessary.
AMA is putting together a list of local suppliers able to expedite food and supply orders, which will be available on the mining association's website at http://www.alaskaminers.org.
For anyone planning to travel to Alaska to carry out the essential work of mining or mineral exploration this year, a Traveler Declaration form is required by the state.
For crewmembers flying into the state, these forms are being made available by airlines and are collected by TSA at the airport.
Driving into Alaska could, however, be more challenging. AMA strongly advises that individuals planning to drive to Alaska for mining or mineral exploration contact Canada Border Services Agency before leaving to determine border crossing eligibility and the documentation that would be needed – it is a long drive to Alaska only to be turned away or delayed at a border crossing.
For crews traveling within the state, a plan detailing the measures being implemented to avoid the spread of COVID-19 is required by Alaska health mandates.
More information on developing and submitting required workforce protective plans for workers traveling from outside of Alaska or intrastate is available at https://covid19.alaska.gov/unified-command/protective-plans/.
Another major concern is not putting additional strains on medical staff and supplies in local communities. This means that staff at mineral exploration and placer mining camps need to understand COVID-19 and how to treat the disease and if medical assistance is needed rely on medical facilities in Alaska's hub cities.
Any company working at a remote camp should have a plan to manage a COVID-19 case that includes specifics on isolation, protection and monitoring of other employees, sanitization, and other protocols. Plans should include a concept that protects the residents of nearby small remote communities and does not rely on or exhaust the medical resources of those communities.
More information on Alaska COVID-19 mandates, as well as wide variety of resources are available at https://covid19.alaska.gov/.