“It’s just been a terrific year when it comes to investing in Robinson’s future,” Amanda Hilton, general manager of the Robinson Mine, said during a recent tour of the mine.
A new shovel went into the dirt on April 1. The mine will take its first step into autonomous equipment when an autonomous drill arrives in December, replacing one of the mine’s four drills. Five new Komatsu 830 haul trucks will begin to arrive in January, bringing the fleet up to 38. Construction is starting on a new mine operations and technical services building which is being built near the current administrative building.
The Robinson Mine, about seven miles west of Ely in east central Nevada, has a long history, dating back more than 150 years. A few times, the mine has shut down for years due to fluctuations in the price of copper. The mine has now been in continuous operation for 15 years, and there are many plans for the future. Work is continuing on reclaiming heritage sites at the mine, analysis is ongoing on finding ways to resume mining of some of the older areas, new equipment is coming in, and the search continues for talented and hardworking people interested in joining Robinson’s team of dedicated employees.
“This site is about the employees; that’s what drives Robinson,” said Hilton. “This is a technically difficult property; it’s the employees who are committed and work hard that make this mine operate smoothly.”
Prospector Thomas Robinson discovered gold and silver around 1867 in the hills outside today’s town of Ely, so the area became known as the Robinson mining district.
In the years around the turn of the 19th century a lot of people opened gold mines in the area, but they didn’t have much success. Copper was discovered in the area in the 1870s, but it wasn’t very profitable until extraction and transportation issues began to be solved in the early 1900s. Underground copper mining began in the area of today’s Ruth Pit in 1900. Open pit copper mining began in the area of today’s Liberty Pit in 1906.
Mark Requa organized the White Pine Copper Company in 1902. He learned that the company that owned land next to his, the New York and Nevada Copper Company, was bankrupt. He purchased it and created the Nevada Consolidated Copper Company. The Consolidated Copper Company had underground mines and employed about 1,200 miners from World War I into the 1920s. Some mines were closed in the 1930s due to low copper prices, but by 1941 there were again more than 1,000 miners on the payroll.
In 1958, the Kennecott Copper Company bought out Consolidated Copper Company’s Robinson District copper mines. Kennecott operated the Robinson Mine until declining copper prices forced the closure of the mine in 1978.
From 1978 to 1991, Silver King Mining and others operated small gold mines in the Robinson District.
Magna Copper bought the Robinson Mine in 1990 and began work on reopening the mine. In 1996, BHP bought out Magma and operated Robinson from 1996 to 1999. Magma and BHP invested around $480 million in the mine and plant. A lot of the buildings at today’s Robinson mine were built in the 1990s.
The mine was closed in 1999 due to low copper prices.
Quadra Mining bought Robinson from BHP in 2004 and reopened the mine that year. Since 2005, the mine has produced an average of about 125 million pounds of copper per year.
A molybdenum recovery circuit was constructed by Quadra and began operation in December 2005, so the Robinson mine now also produces molybdenum along with copper, gold, and some silver.
In 2012, KGHM S.A., a large Polish copper producer, purchased QuadraFNX and the Robinson Mine. KGHM began in 1961 as The Copper Mining-Smelting Combine in Lubin, Poland.
From 1906 through 2018, the Robinson District has produced 5.5 billion pounds of copper and 3.6 million ounces of gold.
The U.S. Geological Survey website says, “Robinson is considered by the USGS to be one of the Giant Porphyry-Related Metal Camps of the World.”
The long history of the Robinson Mine has added to the work which must be done as the mine is operated today because of the legacy environmental impacts that were left behind. Robinson Environmental Resources Manager Frederick Partey said that is one of the things he likes about Robinson.
Partey is originally from Ghana. He came to the United States in 2002 to go to school for his Ph.D, and has stayed since. He joined Robinson in January 2015.
“Robinson is a very unique place and I talk about it all the time,” Partey said. “Most places, you do the permitting, you do the compliance, and then the reclamation will come at a later date. That’s not what we do at Robinson. We are doing them all concurrently as we are mining, so that makes this mine a very unique place that I really like.”
Through the years, Partey said, many predecessors to today’s miners left behind a lot of things that predated today’s environmental regulations, and now we need to take care of these inherited issues so the environmental regulations are all met and exceeded where possible.
One of the sites that needs work is the Keystone waste rock dump that looks like a yellow mountain right next to the town of Ruth. Last year’s Robinson Mine expansion Environment Assessment (EA) included work on the Keystone waste rock dump. The EA has been approved, and work is now proceeding.
The EA allows over-dumping on Keystone, so trucks are now dumping non-acid-generating waste rock across the site to encapsulate the old material. Robinson Technical Resources Manager Jamie Cogley explained that in order for the old material in Keystone to create acid, it has to have water and oxygen. The encapsulation that is in progress now will greatly reduce the amount of reaction that’s possible.
“And that is really taking care of a historical reclamation issue that has been here for 40, 50 years,” Hilton said. “We’re over-dumping it, we’re going to be encapsulating all of that material. This is an excellent solution for Robinson and a very positive outcome for the environment.”
“Being so close to the town of Ruth, and so close to the town of Ely, we have to be really careful in our decisions, and make sure that we’re doing the right thing for the community with the decisions that we’re making,” Hilton said. “We’ve been really involved with open communications with the town of Ruth, making sure they know exactly what our plans are, and addressing any questions and concerns that come up. In the course of the Environmental Assessment we had a public scoping meeting for Keystone in the town of Ruth so that we could talk to the residents of Ruth one on one about what this would mean to them.”
Ruth is a town of about 400 people. It was moved from its original location as the mine expanded years ago. Several old mining towns were overtaken by the mine. Reipetown used to be in the spot where Robinson’s mill is today. A 1908 picture of Reipetown, with the Miners Club in the foreground, hangs in the hallway of the mill building.
Cogley explained that past mine operators tried to leach gold and copper, but the process was only marginally successful.
“Because of the minerology -- there are too many clays -- they could not get the leaching process to work efficiently,” Cogley said.
As contaminated former leach material is mined, it is placed on a liner and will be covered with a liner.
It will be “totally encapsulated so it won’t get any more water percolating through it,” Cogley said.
Something else left behind by the mining activity of years ago are the old underground mine shafts which still run through the area.
“We have to manage that,” said Robinson Health & Safety Manager Robert Dechant.
He said that before they mine, they check old maps and do drilling to check for open underground shafts.
The Robinson Mine has three large open pits: Tripp-Veteran, Liberty and Ruth. Greatbasinheritage.org says the Liberty Pit, which has been mined for more than 100 years, was the largest in the State.
Ruth, which is divided into East and West pits, is the pit which is active today. With the approval of last year’s EA, the Ruth Pit is now being expanded.
“We’re currently mining in the fourth layback of Ruth West pit and the third layback of the Ruth East pit,” Hilton said, “and we will start development of the fifth layback in Ruth West around Jan. 1 of next year. We anticipate that the fifth layback in Ruth West will keep us in operation into 2025. We do have several of the targets around the site that could extend our mine life beyond 2025.”
The Ruth Pit looks very big, but it will be getting bigger and deeper.
“This layback will go a couple hundred feet deeper, and then the following layback that will start next year will go a couple hundred feet deeper yet,” Cogley said.
The pit is currently about 1,200 feet deep.
“The geologists and engineers look at exploration,” Cogley said. “There’s a lot of ore left here, a lot of mineralization. Our goal is to find where the remaining mineralization is. We’re constantly trying to figure out how to recover it, how to mine it profitably.”
“The older areas have a higher cost mineral,” Cogley said. “As the copper price comes up there’s a possibility that those could become economically feasible to mine again. Also, we’re continuing to drill those areas to look at the metallurgical properties, and to learn how to recover the metal. It’s an ongoing process, it’s never ending. The copper is there, it’s just how to recover it.
“We have an open Environmental Assessment related to future mining in the Liberty pit,” Hilton said. “We have begun all of the permitting processes to allow us to mine there again.”
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Processing and shipping
The region is geologically quite complex. This causes problems when processing the ore, as only sulfide ore can be efficiently processed and some of the minerals present can cause a reduction in recoveries.
“Our ore … has a lot of alteration, it has a lot of clays in it,” Cogley said. “That’s one of the process issues we have.”
Blending is used to help maximize the process throughput and recovery. Multiple stockpiles are used in the blending process.
A little under 50,000 tons a day of ore goes through the mill, where it is ground down until it is fine enough to go to the flotation process. There the pH is adjusted and reagents are added so copper, along with the gold and molybdenum and the little bit of silver are floated up and into the final concentrate. The molybdenum is separated into its own concentrate. The concentrate is dried and shipped by truck to Wendover, where it is shipped out by rail. Some goes to a smelter in Salt Lake, and some goes to Vancouver, Wash., where it is shipped overseas.
Cogley commented that prior to the tariffs restricting Chinese trade, a good portion of the concentrate went to China. Now the concentrate is going to other destinations, including India and Europe.
Hilton said that some of the materials coming into Robinson are now also subject to tariffs.
“We are seeing tariffs that we didn’t plan for on our grinding media, on some of our liners, our wear iron, and on some of our tires,” Hilton said. “These tariffs are having an impact on both sides of the supply chain for us.”
Hilton said the mine is looking into the possibility of bringing rail service back to the mine site.
“When Kennecott was here, they would rail directly out of the Liberty pit to McGill,” he said.
McGill is a small town just north of Ely, and there was a mill there.
Today Northern Nevada Railway operates a tourist train which departs from Ely and comes close to the town of Ruth. The rail line from Ruth to the mine site nearby is in disrepair.
“We’re doing a study to see if it would make any sense for us to reopen that rail line,” Hilton said.
The rail line could ship concentrate from the mine site, and could possibly also bring in some bulk commodities.
Robinson’s mill turns 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
“Our mill has excellent run time. That’s something that we’re really proud of at Robinson,” Hilton said.
In the mill building there is a control room with two big arrays of monitors. One is the dispatch center where the dispatcher manages all of the trucks, loading units, dozers, graders, and other activities around the mine site.
“There are many different tabs,” said Mine Fleet Controller Josh Pellegrino. “We’re keeping track of this and that and everything else.”
“They are able to be in constant communication,” Hilton said. “These are some great examples of how we use technology at Robinson. All of our equipment has the MineStar dispatch system.”
On the other side of the control room, people monitor everything that is going on with the mill and the flotation process.
“All of this technology has thresholds that are in place for each one of these stage gates,” Hilton said, “and that allows the control room operator to monitor for any upsets that are occurring in the plant so that we can respond to those immediately.
“We can actually run this mill from a different location if we need to,” Hilton said.
“If we have to evacuate for any reason,” Process Operator John Ferrari said, “we can go up to the building up above. All this system is set up there.”
When Thomas Robinson was exploring the Ely area back in the 1860s, it was an isolated area in the mountains of Nevada, but there weren’t too many people in all of the western United States. Today a lot of people want to be at least close to a bigger city. Ely is a city of just 5,000 people, and it’s quite a ways from bigger cities. It’s almost three hours to Elko, three and a half hours to Salt Lake City, and four hours to Las Vegas.
But many of the 600 people who work at the Robinson Mine love the small-town life in a scenic setting with lots of opportunities for outdoor activities.
Ferrari moved from Wyoming to Ely in 1959 when he was in the sixth grade. He worked for Kennecott for 16 years and has now worked at Robinson for 13 years.
“I don’t like to leave,” he said.
Ferrari’s youngest son works in the truck shop at Robinson.
Chris George, another Process Operator at the mill, has been at Robinson about 10 years. His father retired from the mine in January.
“We have a lot of family connections within Robinson,” Hilton said.
Hilton grew up in Reno, but went to high school in Ely for three years. She then moved away for 10 years, and moved back to Ely in 2004 to work at Robinson when the mine reopened.
“Both my husband and I are fourth generation residents of this community,” Hilton said. “We have a lot of deep roots here.”
“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing this year is recruiting employees, especially skilled employees, as we look at how the mining industry is really picking up in the state of Nevada,” Hilton said. “We’re a partner with Great Basin College in developing an electrical instrumentation program and a diesel mechanic program at their Ely branch, and we’re focused on growing our own talent, growing our own mechanics, our own technicians. We have a very comprehensive training program for operators.”
She pointed out that Pellegrino, who came to Robinson five years ago with no experience in the mining industry, started out as a haul truck driver and moved through several different roles and is now a mine fleet controller, a leader of the crew.
“It’s been nice. I’ve acquired several different skill sets in my time here,” Pellegrino said.
“It’s a long-term proposition to be working on training our own employees, but we feel it is well worth it to make that investment in our people,” Hilton said.
In July Robinson made an effort to connect with people with local ties.
“The Fourth of July is the big community celebration in Ely; that’s when most people come back home to Ely,” Hilton said. “We had a career fair on the fifth of July in Ely with the intent to connect with some of the people who were in town for the celebration and who already had roots in this area in hopes of recruiting them.
“We would also like to invite all people without roots in the area who think they might like the small-town life to look into employment opportunities with us.”
Some of the people who come to Robinson decide to stay for a long time.
“This year we had the opportunity to give out over forty 15-years of service awards,” Hilton said. “This property was reopened 15 years ago. That for me speaks highly of this core committed group of employees who have been here since the mine reopened, and are very loyal and dedicated to Robinson.”
“We are a close-knit community. We all know each other outside of work and we’re committed to the success of Robinson all the time.”