June 15, 1997 in Nation/World

Reviving ‘Uncle Bunker’ Long Process Of Restoring Bunker Hill Mine Reaches Important Milestone

John Miller Staff writer
 

Five workaholic years after he bought the Bunker Hill Mine, Bob Hopper’s restoration project reaches a giant milestone in July.

That’s when the No. 2 hoist - a double drum monster located 3,000 meters inside Kellogg Tunnel - will lower miners into the depths for the first time since the mine was closed in 1991.

Under Hopper’s supervision, miles of underground timbers already have been replaced by a small crew of 15. Decaying equipment, left to rust as the mine filled with water, now resonates again with life.

Resurrecting the hoist - built in 1923 by the Coeur d’Alene Foundry and Hardware Co. in Wallace, Idaho - seems a major victory, at least symbolically, for Hopper, with his vision of breathing life back into “Uncle Bunker.”

“Everything is predicated on putting together an abandoned Queen Mary so she’ll someday be able to sail the ocean again,” said Hopper, president of the Placer Mining Co., a group of well-funded mining investors who have bankrolled the restoration.

“The proven reserves are here,” he said. “If you have the reserves, you have a mine.”

After being moved to its current location in 1949, the hoist was used to lift the skip - the platform where miners stand - between levels 9 and 23. Condemned to water-logged inactivity six years ago, the vintage hoist clearly means more to the mine owner than just another powerful tool.

It is a working remnant of an era Hopper would hate to see grind to a halt.

“That hoist is the kind of thing we used to be so proud of,” he said. “There was a time when we made the best of everything in this country.”

At last year’s production peak, Bunker Hill’s scaled-back operation produced 50 to 80 tons of ore a day, using only a small hoist that accessed levels 9 and 11. If he could increase production to 600 to 1,000 tons, Hopper said the mine would turn a profit.

He insists there is enough ore in the mine to do that. On large maps of the underground workings, he traces faded red streaks with his fingers - rich veins of lead, zinc, and silver. Engineers for Gulf Corp. created the charts in 1991, months before learning the company was bankrupt and workers laid down their tools.

“There are 10 million tons of confirmed ore reserves still in the mountain,” said Hopper, plus another 30 million tons of low-grade and speculative reserves.

He is optimistic about the expansion, even while silver remains below $5 an ounce. The mine also yields valuable pyromorphite crystals. These ornate, fragile formations - unique in the world - bring up to $30,000 for the best examples.

Independent industry analysts were hesitant to assess Bunker Hill’s expansion chances. While the price of zinc - a major component of the mine’s ore reserves - remains relatively healthy, Joe Rosta of CPM Group Ltd. in New York City said the issue is too complicated to reduce to simply a matter of metals prices.

“It really does depend on the quality of the product,” said Rosta. “It’s just too broad to make a comment.”

Hopper remains reluctant to say just how much Placer Mining Co. has spent restoring the hoist and the rest of the mine, conceding only that the sum amounts to “a lot.”

But work on the hoist hasn’t simply been a part of flashy band-aid measures to woo deep-pocketed investors. Its restoration “just made sense,” Hopper said, now that much of the mine’s infrastructure is substantially complete.

“We’re taking the right course to achieve a functioning mine,” he said.

For more than 60 years, the No. 2 hoist was the heart and soul of Bunker Hill’s underground world. During the boom of the 1960s, this 600-horsepower beast transported hundreds of miners every day to-and-from the different levels.

Bunker Hill electrician Jon Groth said replacing the hoist’s electrical system was the most difficult task for workers when restoration started in February.

“We used 11 miles of copper wire,” Groth said, explaining that after the mine closed in 1991, all of the valuable metal was cannibalized and sold. “We had to basically start from scratch.

“Mechanically and electrically, she’s done,” he said. In the cavernous hoist room, he joins three other men, including miner Ron King, as they apply a final coat of paint to the floor and ceiling.

Before Bunker Hill closed the first time in 1981, the No. 2’s hoist room was King’s domain. When he returned to Hopper’s operation five years ago, King said he was amazed at just how much the hoist had deteriorated.

Sitting inside the refurbished operator’s house, King explained how miners mounting the skip used a bell system to tell him the level for which they were destined.

“When they get near that level, you start slowing the skip down, just like an elevator,” he said. “You just have to be really self-conscious about what’s going on. It’s really easy for somebody to get hurt, because you can’t see what’s going on. You have to feel it.”

Tests of the hoist begin next month. But even once old No. 2 is restored, its role will remain limited until the operation here is expanded.

After a deal with the Royal Silver Mining Co. of Spokane to buy the mine for $60 million collapsed in April, Hopper’s emotional vision of re-starting Bunker Hill became even more complicated.

Executives from Royal Silver blamed their failed buy-out on a federal lawsuit against several other mining companies in the valley. They said that scared off foreign investors.

In that suit, the Environmental Protection Agency wants Hecla Mining Co., Sunshine Mining Co., Coeur d’Alene Mines Corp. and New York-based Asarco Inc. to pay hundreds of millions to clean up metals pollution in the basin leached from mine waste rock upstream.

“The climate with the environmental suit does make things more difficult,” said Holly Houston, of the Coeur d’Alene Basin Mining information office. “With that hanging over peoples’ heads, the bad publicity hurts prospects of business in the valley and rebuilding the economy.”

If the suit is resolved, which could take years, Houston says “the future for the entire valley will be brighter.”

But for Ivan Urnovitz, with the Northwest Mining Association in Spokane, even the specter of the suit does not present an insurmountable barrier for the “right investor.” Nor does the multimillion-dollar price tag.

Urnovitz said the purchase of Bunker Hill - or any other mine, for that matter - simply requires capital-rich backers who can bide their time long enough for a deal to be struck.

“Quite frankly, I have seen mining projects and expansion in equally or even more complex situations go forward and succeed,” he said.

Hopper says even if he can’t find an investor his men will continue to restore the mine - for instance, there’s still the giant No. 1 hoist to be refurbished. He concedes that securing investors could speed things up, but added that the outcome doesn’t necessarily hinge on financial backing.

“As I’ve said from the beginning,” he said, “if we get done with restoration and we still have no major investor, we’ll just do it ourselves.”

Both Urnovitz and Houston agreed that if Bunker Hill were to resume operations the way Hopper envisions, it would be a tremendous morale boost to the economically-depressed Silver Valley.

“I think it would be a very good symbol to show the valley can carry on mining in the future,” Urnovitz said. “It would show that whatever challenges have been put before the Silver Valley and mining, that they’re ready to meet and overcome them.”

A year ago, Silver Valley residents stood by gloomily as the stacks above Bunker Hill’s defunct smelter were demolished, Houston said. If the mine is rejuvenated, she foresees a considerable psychological boost for those still waxing nostalgic for Uncle Bunker.

“I think it would mean prosperity for the valley,” Houston said. “I always keep my fingers crossed.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color photos

MEMO: See related story under the headline: Bunker Hill’s No. 2 hoist reflects American ingenuity

See related story under the headline: Bunker Hill’s No. 2 hoist reflects American ingenuity

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