Uncle Bunker’s back.
Once the Silver Valley’s flagship metals producer, the Bunker Hill mine and smelter died a painful death 15 years ago.
Monday, an ambitious Spokane mining company opened the latest chapter in the Bunker Hill saga. Royal Silver Mines Inc. announced plans to spend $40 million over the next four years developing the historic mine.
“We think we can make it work,” said Bob Jorgensen, senior vice president for the upstart company. “The bottom line is that there’s still a lot of opportunity up there, and we’re not going about this lightly.”
Royal Silver Mines, a small exploration company headed by local miners and financiers, has been active recently in the Silver Valley. The company acquired the Crescent Mine, adjacent to the Bunker Hill and Sunshine mines, and several mining claims around the valley.
If Royal Silver goes ahead with its plans, Bunker Hill would hire 40 or 50 new workers at most. More importantly, the multimillion-dollar investment in Bunker Hill - a risk few miners would make just a few years ago - makes the recent revival in the Silver Valley seem official.
Retirees from the old Bunker heralded the announcement - though it means nothing for the thousands of pensioners who had their benefits cut when the old owners of Bunker Hill, Gulf Resources Corp., went bankrupt.
“I’ll tell you that would be the best thing that could possibly happen to us out here,” said Donald Jasberg, 70, of Kellogg. He worked as an electrician at the huge mine from 1943 to 1981. “It should be a shot in the arm for the city of Kellogg.”
When people think of the Silver Valley’s mining history, they think of Uncle Bunker, for all the right or wrong reasons, Jasberg said.
While producing $5 billion worth of metals, based on current prices, since its discovery in 1885, Bunker’s separate smelting stacks have also belched much of the pollution that created the federal Superfund cleanup site that swallows Kellogg.
The announcement also represents another step forward in the Silver Valley. So far this year, two idled mines have reopened, a third has announced a major expansion, and a fourth has found a big stash of silver and lead deep underground.
But Bunker Hill represents perhaps the biggest challenge. Much of the equipment and shafts need maintenance before the mine can produce big amounts of ore. As with any mine, metals prices must remain high.
To even start the project, Royal Silver Mines will have to sell stock to raise money. Jorgensen said the company is in the process of getting listed on a domestic stock exchange.
A similarly ambitious group of miners kick-started the mine in 1989, employing more than 200 workers briefly before running into credit troubles and going bankrupt in 1991.
But Royal Silver officials are very optimistic, a faith based heavily on the good work of Bob Hopper, one of the Silver Valley’s most colorful figures.
Since 1991, Hopper, of Placer Mining Corp., has painstakingly restored a portion of the equipment at Bunker Hill, employing about 17 miners to haul out ore.
Hopper, who currently holds Bunker Hill rights, was smiling Monday. Committed to the project as if it were his own child, he rarely if ever takes days off from the mine, personally supervising the restoration and maintenance of the equipment.
“If it’s a good deal for the mine, it’ll always be a good thing for us,” Hopper said after telling his employees of the good news.
Royal Silver Mines has 90 days to have its lawyers “make sure the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted,” Jorgensen said. The company would pay Placer $1 million and give Hopper a million shares. In return, Royal Silver mines gets an 80 percent stake in Bunker Hill.
Hopper and his crew can pull up about 50 tons of high-grade stuff in a day of mining. If Royal pulls the trigger on the deal, the company wants to increase that to 500 tons a day.
That means up to 40 or so new hires when Royal makes the commitment, Hopper said. That number could gradually increase as more exploration and production occurs through the miles and miles of underground workings.
Bunker closed down in 1981, laying off 2,200 workers. It began an exodus of miners from the Silver Valley that culminated in 1991, when barely any of the mines operated because of low silver prices.
While most of the surrounding mines are known as silver mines, Bunker Hill is primarily a lead and zinc producer, Jorgensen said. “It’s really a base metals play for us,” he said.
There’s still plenty of silver in there, however. As well as pyromorphite crystals, some of the rarest on earth. Hopper has kept his operation going on the strength of these fragile and pure crystals that sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: Bunker Hill’s climb back 1981: Bunker Hill mine, smelter close; 2,200 jobs lost 1986: Bunker Hill site qualifies for federal Superfund cleanup money 1989: Newly formed Bunker Hill Mining Co. employs 220 and reports encouraging results 1991: Bunker Hill Mining Co. goes bankrupt. Placer Mining Corp. buys Bunker Hill 1996: Royal Silver Mines Inc. announces plans to spend $40 million over four years on Bunker Hill.
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