Nevada Gold Mines’ Long Canyon Mine is approaching its four-year anniversary since mining commenced. Mining officially started at Long Canyon on Jan. 4, 2016. The mine marked three years of production in November. Compared with a lot of other mines in this region, some of which date back more than 150 years, Long Canyon is practically brand new.
“We’re sure proud of the operation that we have out here,” Long Canyon General Manager Megan Tibbals said during a recent tour. “Coming from nothing out here to the way it is today, it’s an impressive property. We’re happy to show it off.”
Everything at the mine site still looks pretty new. Since everything was built quite recently, the mine has lots of the latest developments and safety features, right down to the light fixtures in the carbon-in-column building, which can be lowered so that electricians don’t have to climb up on a ladder to change the lights.
“That’s planning for safety, designing for safety, right from the beginning,” Tibbals said.
Process Superintendent Clayton Prothro said he and Surface Mining Manager Randy Walund “were here when the first shovel went in the dirt to build this place. And once the design team came to me and said, ‘Here’s what we want to do,’ and they offered those lights, I said, ‘that’s a no brainer, buy ‘em.’”
“It’s kind of unique to start a mine up,” Walund said. “You have the opportunity to make your own baggage, you don’t have to inherit it from a place that’s been going since 1860. It’s been pretty good.”
A significant discovery
Long Canyon is on the east side of the Pequop Mountains, about four miles south of Interstate 80, halfway between Wells and Wendover. The site is unique in that it is the first significant gold discovery in an unexplored area of northern Nevada in quite a few years, and it is a new mine in an area where there hasn’t been a mine before. McEwen’s Gold Bar Mine, for example, just started production this year, but it is mining the site northwest of Eureka which Atlas Precious Metals Inc. mined from 1986 to 1994.
Fronteer Gold Inc. explored the Long Canyon site in the late 2000s, and it was an exciting time of discovery. Fronteer was the 51 percent owner and operator of Long Canyon, and in Aug. 2010 Fronteer made a C$281 million deal with AuEx Ventures to become the 100 percent owner of the Long Canyon project.
Goldstocktrades.com wrote in Dec. 2010, “Fronteer has not just discovered a mine, it’s discovered a whole new trend in a mining-friendly jurisdiction near infrastructure. This mine has the potential to get huge.”
Newmont Mining Corp. acquired the Long Canyon Project in Feb. 2011 in a $2.33 billion dollar deal with Fronteer.
“Newmont is able to recognize the characteristics of a large, long-life deposit,” Newmont spokesman Omar Jabara said at the time.
Newmont later described Long Canyon as “the most significant Carlin-type oxide gold discovery in Nevada in more than a decade.”
Long Canyon’s location is unique in a couple of ways.
The Long Canyon Mine is in Elko County, and there are not that many mines in Elko County, even though a lot of people who work at mines live in Elko. Northwest of Carlin there is a series of mines owned and operated by Nevada Gold Mines from Gold Quarry to Goldstrike, and they are in the northeastern corner of Eureka County.
Nevada Gold Mines’ current active mines in Elko County are Long Canyon and South Arturo, which is north of Goldstrike. Emigrant, which is south of Carlin, is not currently being mined, but it is being operated as a processing plant, so gold is produced there.
Since Long Canyon is in Elko County, the county receives the net proceeds of minerals tax from the mine.
Another way Long Canyon is unique is that unlike a lot of mines in Nevada located in far-flung rural areas that most people never see, Long Canyon is not far off Interstate 80, so that thousands of people may see the mine every day as they drive along the interstate.
“Driving from Salt Lake City to Reno, you have eight minutes of view of Long Canyon,” Newmont Regional Environmental Affairs Manager Dan Anderson said a few years ago.
But the mine is kind of hidden in plain sight, because the design plan purposefully minimized visual disturbance to the natural landscape.
“The majority of buildings at the older mines are that desert tan,” Walund said. “And ours are shale green, I believe it’s called. During permitting the BLM came out with big color boards. They put them out in the sage brush, and they had a point on the interstate that they’d look from. When they found a color that you really couldn’t see from the interstate, that’s the one we picked. That’s why the buildings are green. Actually, everything is green other than the mobile equipment.”
“When you come across the flats here on I-80,” Prothro said, “and you see this building up against the hillside, unless you know what you’re looking for, it’s really hard to pick those buildings out, because they blend into the background.”
Prothro explained that the mine also uses a type of LED lighting called “night sky lighting” which diffuses the light down and out, so that minimal light shines upward and the lights are less visible from a distance.
“The traveling public doesn’t want to see our lights in the middle of the night. It’s just kind of disruptive,” Prothro said.
Fully staffed, Long Canyon employs 249 people, but they’re often a little short of that goal.
“When we first started we thought a majority of the folks would come from the Elko—Spring Creek area,” Walund said. “But it’s actually 50/50, with about fifty percent coming from Elko – Spring Creek, and Wells and Wendover comprise the other 50%. So a pretty good mix of folks, where they come from.”
A few people come down from Idaho.
The mine is about 30 miles east of Wells and 30 miles west of West Wendover. It’s about an hour and a half commute to the mine for those who live in Spring Creek.
“We have a good workforce,” Walund said. “There’s a lot of communication. You’re not afraid to say anything to anybody. And that’s what we encourage, is to make sure that we’re all talking. They do a good job as far as watching out for each other out here. And that’s pretty much what we set forward on day one, that’s what we want, is a group of folks who are willing to talk. And what did we say? You’re going to have fun out here. If it’s miserable coming through the gate, it’s probably not a good place to be.”
“We’re proud of the facility, we’re proud of the people who work here,” Tibbals said. “It’s a great group of people.”
Tibbals said the location of the Long Canyon Mine gives Nevada Gold Mines an opportunity to be involved in the communities of Wells, West Wendover and Wendover.
“We’ve been big in Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Elko,” Tibbals said. “This puts us engaging in Wells and Wendover and West Wendover, building relationships with the communities, becoming partners with the community leaders and the events going on there. Really trying to develop those long term sustainable relationships in these communities has been a big focus for us.
Joining the JV
On July 1, Long Canyon was one of the five Newmont mines to join the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture, along with Carlin, Phoenix, Twin Creeks and Lone Tree.
“The name on our shirt has changed,” Tibbals said. “But the attitude, the safety culture, the work culture here at Long Canyon is the same.”
There was some apprehension throughout northeastern Nevada as the launch of the joint venture approached.
“I think there was fear on both sides,” said Production General Foreman Randy Moore. “You’ve got two companies coming together. You’re going to butt heads. But we all had the same vision. It’s about the company and making the company money, and making sure the shareholders are happy and everybody’s happy. Both parent companies have strong safety cultures. There might be little things different here and there, but to see it all coming together is actually pretty neat. Because everybody is part of one team—we’re not enemies anymore.”
“We’re one team,” said Tibbals. “One team with one mission.”
The staff at the mine has mostly stayed the same, other than Tibbals coming on as the new general manager.
Tibbals is the fourth generation in her family to graduate from the Mackay School of Mines.
“My family’s been here a long time,” Tibbals said. “We have a lot of connection to the state, and to mining history.”
She spent 15 years at Carlin, at Gold Quarry, doing various jobs, and then she was at the Phoenix Mine for two years, where she was the process manager before making the move to Long Canyon.
Tibbals said there was a good transition when she came out to spend a few weeks with the previous general manager.
“She had done a good job here with the team, setting things up for the future. Being able to do a crossover with her was really beneficial, to make sure there was a smooth transition, that there weren’t gaps in what we were doing, or in the vision we had here at the site.”
Another change since Newmont and Barrick formed the joint venture July 1 is that about ten people who used to be in the Newmont North American regional office in Elko are now at the Long Canyon mine site. Central office people have been sent to all the Nevada Gold Mines sites.
Tibbals said one example of someone who has come to the site is one of the people working under Long Canyon Environmental Manager Steve Gross.
“She was doing permitting out of the regional office,” Tibbals said. “Now she’s still doing the same job, but she’s located here on site, engaging with us directly every day, really being part of the team here at Long Canyon, instead of sitting in the office building.”
The supply chain is another example of the benefits of having people on site, Tibbals said.
“Now they’re connected to our operations, they’re here on site. They’re able to go to our production meetings on a daily basis, and live what we’re living. If we’re not getting a part on time, and it’s causing us some down time, they’re actually here with us, they’re living it. They’re able to jump on that stuff and get things taken care of rather than relying on a phone call or an email.”
“Our projects team as well,” Tibbals said. “We’re in the middle of permitting, going through the study steps of adding a new phase onto Long Canyon, and those people have also come here.”
“This should be a real positive thing. The idea is that the work happens here, this is where the value is created. Let’s have the people here doing the work as well.”
“It’s much easier to walk down the hall than to try to get someone on the phone” Walund said. “Trying to explain it over the phone is pretty hard sometimes.”
Newmont got the pollution control permit for Long Canyon in 2015 and started construction that year. Mining started in Jan. 2016, the first ore went on the leach pad in May 2016, and commercial production started with the first gold pour in Nov. 2016.
“It’s been doing really well,” said Prothro, who was with Newmont for more than 23 years before the changeover to the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture. “November is three years of production, and I’m happy to say we hit every metric we threw at the corporation from the get go, as far as the forecasting and modelling went. It’s performed just beautifully. The ore is nice and clean. It’s a very clean oxide ore body, which is really different from the other heap leaches that you see in Nevada. No complaints.”
“It’s all run of mine heap leach,” said Walund. “We don’t do any crushing here, we take it straight from the mine to leach pads.”
A giant mill constantly spinning around to crush the ore is an impressive site at some mine sites, but Long Canyon doesn’t have to bother with that.
“When we first were going through the feasibility we looked at putting a mill in,” Walund said. “A smaller mill for some of the higher grade stuff. But at the end of the day it just didn’t make economic sense, because of the way this material leaches, it’s pretty impressive. The offset in the recovery didn’t pay for the mill, so we decided to go with just the heap leach only.”
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Nevada Gold Mines has five heap leach facilities, but Long Canyon is the only pure heap leach operation, with all of the material going straight to the leach pad.
“It doesn’t have that complex ore body,” Tibbals said.
“We’re lucky enough to have the right chemistry to not have to mill it,” Walund said.
He said gold is most prevalent in the pit’s red rock that is already oxidized.
“That’s why this is such good leach material, it’s pretty oxidized as we bring it out,” Walund said. “We don’t have any acid-generating material in the current pit at all. It’s all pretty benign oxidized material.”
But even with the benign composition of the ore, the company has rigorous environmental monitoring and reporting.
Being part of the Nevada Gold Mines joint venture does make options available if milling became more worthwhile at Long Canyon at some point in the future.
“We can share best practices between the facilities,” Tibbals said. “And it also brings additional mills into the portfolio so down the road there is that potential, it actually opens up the processing capabilities, with those additional mills coming into one company. There are no plans to do that now. But the synergies have potential in the future.”
“We’re mining basically out of one pit, just different areas within that pit,” Walund said. “It runs about a mile in length and it’s pretty narrow. Everything we’re mining now is above the water table. Phase 1 was all permitted to be dry.”
“Currently we mine about 110,000 short tons a day. Our average grade is .06-ish out of the pit, .062 ounces per ton. We produce from 170 to 200 thousands of ounces a year.
The mine has a fleet of 12 Caterpillar 793F 240-ton trucks, two Hitachi 3600 shovels, and a backup Cat 994 loader.
For the first nine months, a contractor did some of the work as they got up to the top of the mountain.
“It’s pretty steep country out here,” Walund said. “And our equipment is just so big that it’s not the right equipment for what we were doing.”
The mine has a fleet of three DML drills, but they are currently using only two because they are mining in one focused area.
The initial plan was to put the leach pad just below the pit.
“As the mining engineer that’s what you want to see, and as an office guy, you don’t want to have to drive two miles,” Walund said.
However, they ended up putting the leach pad further to the north to get it higher above the water table.
“It does add a little bit to your haulage, but at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do, to move it away from that water table,” Walund said.
On the way to the leach pad, some lime is added to the ore to keep the pH at 11.5 so the cyanide doesn’t volatilize.
“Our rock’s pretty good here, pretty basic to begin with, so we don’t have to add a lot lime, either.” Walund said.
In the first year of operation, they put 4.4 million tons of ore on the leach pad. They are permitted for 5 million tons of ore a year, and they try to hit right around that mark, Tibbals said.
The leach pad has a base of 4.5 million square feet of a very heavy, substantial plastic liner, most of it double layered.
“When we put this plant together, Prothro said, “before we put the first bit of dirt out on that pad, my team walked every seam to make sure all of the welds and all of the leak tests were there and verified by the contractors who put it in for us, because once we sign off on it, we own it, and if it’s wrong after that, it’s on us.”
Prothro said the liner comes in 20 foot by 420 foot rolls from a facility in Fernley that makes the plastic for a lot of the western United States.
“This pad is essentially cut into three different sections.” Prothro said. “You’ve got A cell, B cell and C cell. And at the very bottom of that liner we’ve got a 24-inch collection pipe which is connected with a herring bone system of 6-inch and 4-inch pipes, and it collects all that solution that we percolate down through the ore. It gets captured in a pipe, and by gravity it gets transported down to the plant.
“Just on the end of the ponds here, we’ve got a small preg tank where that pregnant solution goes. From there, we pump it inside the facility. Inside the facility we’ve got six carbon columns, capable of holding seven to eight tons of carbon per tank. As that carbon loading goes higher, we move that carbon uphill and we put fresh stuff at the bottom.
“On any given day we’re about 99.9% efficient getting the gold out of the solution and getting it onto carbon,” Prothro said.
“Then we take that carbon that’s loaded, and we ship it to our sister site in Carlin, they strip the gold off for us, they regenerate the carbon. We load it up in our carbon truck, and then we bring it back over here and we do it all over again.
“Pretty simple operation.”
“From top to bottom, when the pregnant solution shows up, it takes about 12 minutes to get from the top of this circuit to the barren tank at the very end. We hit it with some more cyanide and bring it back up to the concentration we need it at, and then we ship it back out to the leach pad and do it all over again. A very simple, very efficient process.
After the carbon at Carlin is stripped so the gold can be poured into bars and the carbon is shipped back to Long Canyon, it takes about two weeks for the carbon to make its way from the bottom of the circuit to the loaded tank at the top.
There is a laboratory in Long Canyon’s carbon-in-column facility, where operators can check a variety of measurements.
“The guys monitor it three or four times per shift, make sure everything is happening the way it should—the pH, gold value, and the cyanide are where they should be. And that keeps everything rolling just the way it needs to in order to keep producing gold.”
“The entire process department to support this facility is only 25 people,” Prothro said. “That’s my employees out on the leach pad, that’s four operators that watch this facility 24 hours a day, that’s a couple of maintenance mechanics, metallurgy staff, and electrical staff. And myself included.”
Prothro said a lot of people who see the operation comment on how clear the liquid is running through the carbon columns.
“They expect to see that, once you’re running 2000, 2500 gallons a minute through dirt, it’s going to be dirty and look nasty. But you’ve got the world’s biggest sand filter out there. It does a very effective job. Every time I come walking by here, I expect to see trout in here, it’s that clear.”
At the end of the tour through the carbon-in-column facility, Prothro held out a cup full of the little pieces of carbon that the gold clings to as the solution goes through the tanks. He said there are many, many thousands of micropores on each of the pieces of carbon. Throughout his career he has heard people say that if you spread out the surface area of one of those tiny pieces of carbon, it would be a sheet about a foot by a foot, or a meter by a meter, depending on who is telling the story.
Near the leach pads there is a fenced-off sunken area with a plastic liner that looks like it could hold a pond, but it is completely dry. It is only there to hold overflow if there is an event like a rainstorm.
“This is a run-dry facility,” Prothro said. “We have no surge capacity, we have no preg pond, we have no barren pond. Whatever is in circulation, we have to keep in circulation, and make sure we’re balancing that out with fresh ore applications, as well as meteorological events. If we pick up one inch of rain on that pad, that water belongs to me. It can’t go anywhere else. It has to stay within our facility and within that plastic liner. It’s a bit more of a juggling act than the days of old when you could just have an open channel and flow water wherever you needed to get it back to the plant.”
With the run-dry operations at Long Canyon, there are not ponds or other open water facilities that could attract waterfowl or other wildlife.
“You don’t want them landing on your ponds, you don’t want them landing on your solution,” Prothro said. “So this is a much better application, in my opinion.”
“For normal day to day operations,” Tibbals said, “everything comes off the leach pad, it goes through that small little tank, it goes through the plant, and right back up to the leach pad. And that eliminates the ability for any wildlife to come into contact with our solution. We don’t have any solution sitting out.
“This is the first plant that I’ve been around that’s like that. But it’s definitely one of those best practices.”
It was one year ago that the Bureau of Land Management held a public outreach meeting in Wells on a proposed expansion of the Long Canyon Mine. Expansion plans are continuing to be studied and permitted.
“We’re in the process of permitting feasibility on our phase two, which would go below the water table,” Walund said. “And it would extend the life of mine another six years on the surface, and underground would run until 2035. That would require dewatering, so that’s what we’re in the middle of permitting right now.”
There is an active spring in the side of the mountain that feeds the wetlands in the area. Wendover previously got a portion of their water from the spring.
“We drilled two new wells for them, not knowing whether or not this spring would continue to run while we were in operation,” Walund said. “They switched over to those wells, about four miles south of here.”
Reclamation and wildlife
In the first year of operations, Long Canyon started doing ongoing reclamation to minimize the mine’s effects on the environment. As soon as the first lift was on the waste dump, reclamation started.
“We’re doing a lot of concurrent reclamation,” Walund said. “Whenever we get done with a lift, we go ahead and slope it and put growth media on it, and then we seed in September, usually right before winter. You can see the lower level has already been done and seeded, so you can see the growth coming in on it. Then we did another 25 acres this year on those slopes.
“It’s a lot easier to do it now than it is after you’re done. And it just makes a lot of sense while the people and equipment are here to get it done. It gives the seeds a chance to get a little more growth before we leave the site.”
Walund said the plan for concurrent reclamation was included in the mine’s permitting.
“This is a little bit different than some of the other sites,” Walund said. “There’s a major deer migration corridor through here. Our initial plan was to have the waste dump next to the pit like you would, because that’s your shortest haul. Through working with the agencies on this migration corridor we offset this dump about 2500 feet from the pit, so they still had an area to go through. And the way this is configured, the bottom of it is real shallow, to kind of mimic the alluvial face as it comes in. That gives the animals an opportunity to go up on that if they want to. The rocks you see there are habitat for rabbits and snakes and birds.”
There’s lots of wildlife in the area, including many mule deer, a herd of elk, pygmy bunnies, jackrabbits, cottontails, cranes and coyotes. Sometimes even some llamas get away from their home and wander through.
“And we’ve seen bobcat and mountain lion come over and look down in the pit, to see what we’re doing,” Walund said. “Bobcats are very curious.”
Talking about the wildlife, Walund said, “They don’t seem to mind that we’re here, honestly. They hang out in here because there’s no hunting.”
“The places I’ve worked in the past,” Walund said, “we did some concurrent reclamation also, and the elk would just stand on the waste dump and eat all the good grass we put in and watch the trucks go by.”