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Seeking silver at Bunker Hill: New effort underway to ramp up North Idaho mine

A new effort to restart operations at the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg is in the early stages.  (KATHY PLONKA/The Spokesman-Review)
A new effort to restart operations at the Bunker Hill Mine in Kellogg is in the early stages. (KATHY PLONKA/The Spokesman-Review)

When the operators of the Bunker Hill Mine shut it down in 1981, they left behind a blueprint for reopening it in a 21st century future they could never have imagined, as a high-tech and environmentally sustainable outfit that is searching for silver deposits as deep as three miles below the earth’s surface.

Or so say Sam Ash, CEO and director of Bunker Hill Mining Corp., the Canadian company trying to make this vision a reality, and Ben Hinkle, a consultant hired to help restart the once massively productive mine located in Kellogg, in a video presented to the Idaho Mining Conference last month.

According to Hinkle, the old Bunker Hill Mine office contained a well-organized “treasure-trove of geologic and production data” that “represents 70 years of scientific data and sample collection.”

“These maps contain outstanding, detailed mapping data, historic drill-log information, previously unexecuted exploration plans with drill hole designs and a lot more,” Hinkle says in the video.

After a “massive scanning and digitizing” effort this year, Hinkle has been building a three-dimensional model of the mine workings that its owners hope will help them tap into a trove of about 11 million ounces of silver, 409 million pounds of lead and 880 million pounds of zinc, according to Ash.

Despite the presence of these three metals, Bunker Hill Mining Corp. has billed its efforts as being focused on “high-grade silver,” without mention of whether it would extract lead or zinc.

While Ash did not respond to multiple requests for comment about his company’s plans, he has expressed enormous optimism about what he refers to in the video as Bunker Hill’s “truly remarkable economic and mineral potential.”

Optimism about the mine’s potential has been met with sobering realities before.

In fact, Ash’s company, Bunker Hill Mining Corp., has already faltered once in its attempts to get Bunker Hill up and running again.

The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency struck a deal with Placer Mining Co., which owns the site, and Bunker Hill Mining Corp., which leases the land with an option to buy it, in March 2018 to reopen the mine and end 14 years of litigation at one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites. But the company quickly ran into financial troubles, the 300 jobs a reopened mine was expected to create haven’t materialized and no new ore has yet been extracted.

In March of this year, the company attempted a fresh start, when a new team took over the operation in Kellogg, Ash says in the video.

Among those brought in were Richard Williams, a former chief operating officer of Barrick Gold Corp., and Ash, who also worked for Barrick and who spent some of his upbringing in Kellogg, where his father was a mining engineer before Bunker Hill’s initial shutdown, according to reporting in the Northern Miner, a trade publication.

From Noah Kellogg’s discovery of lead at the site in 1885 through that shutdown almost a century later, about 40 million tons of ore were mined from Bunker Hill.

The vast bulk of what was brought to the surface was lead and zinc, but “interestingly enough,” Ash notes in the video, “165 million ounces of silver was produced during this time, as a byproduct of lead and zinc production.”

“This, coupled with the insights gained from examining and cataloging and digitizing the historic data, has led us to believe that there is tremendous untapped silver potential at Bunker Hill and is the primary reason why, going forward, we are focusing our exploration efforts on the silver potential at Bunker Hill,” Ash says in the video.

In September, the company launched a silver-focused exploration project that involved drilling down 15,000 feet and that “focused on targets in the upper levels of the mine located in close proximity to existing infrastructure,” according to an October news release.

“We believe that the true value and potential of silver in the Bunker Hill lies at depth,” Ash says in the video. “Historic production records indicate that at depth the silver grade was increasing and has the potential to increase substantially the further down that we explore.”

After drilling into the data and the earth, Ash says in the company video that Bunker Hill Mining Corp. is exploring “multiple restart options, including opportunities to start near-term production through an existing portal.”

“Our vision for the Bunker Hill Mining Company is to create a truly modern mining leader,” he says. “What that means to us is being at the forefront of environmental performance, community relations, stakeholder engagement, employing the most modern technologies in every facet of the operation. At Bunker Hill, we have the opportunity to build one of the first zero-impact, zero-emission, zero-carbon mining operations in the world. Our intent is to build a mine for the 21st century.”

But Virginia Gillerman, a research geologist Idaho Geological Survey, a nonregulatory state agency, said Ash’s company has “to do quite a bit of work” before it can actually bring the mine back to a productive life.

While Gillerman acknowledged the Bunker Hill Mining Corp. “outfit has some momentum” and that the existing infrastructure and wealth of historical data may give it a boost, she also said there are a number of “geological, engineering (and) logistical constraints” that may prove difficult and expensive to overcome.

Mac Pooler, the longtime mayor of Kellogg, struck a similarly cautious tone, though he also said he would welcome a revived mining operation at Bunker Hill.

“We need the jobs,” Pooler said, “and we need the manpower to go back to work.”

Though he called it a “good sign” that some work is being done, Pooler said “nothing firm” has been decided and that, “as far as the management, we haven’t met with them in quite a while.”

Ultimately, Pooler said tangible progress depends on factors that are out of his community’s hands, such as the price of silver and interest from investors.

Meanwhile, some work related to the area’s mining legacy remains underway, as the EPA continues to oversee what has been a nearly three-decade process of cleaning up from the last time Bunker Hill was in operation.

The cleanup includes the treatment of 1,300 gallons of polluted water discharged every minute from Bunker Hill. Per the 2018 agreement with EPA, an agency news release said, Bunker Hill Mining Corp. “has agreed to pay for future treatment of acid mine drainage coming from the mine.”

Whether the company hits a mother lode of new silver deposits to help pay for that remediation may depend on another legacy of Bunker Hill’s past: the data discovered in the old mine office.

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