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Northwest Alaska residents meet with mining company on graphite deposit

  • Author: Matthew KNOM
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published November 22, 2014

A mining company hoping to turn a large graphite deposit on the Seward Peninsula into the country's only large-scale graphite mine met with residents in Teller this week to discuss its findings and hear from the locals who would live closest to any potential mine.

Vancouver-based Graphite One Resources has spent three summers at its Graphite Creek deposit near Imuruk Basin, on the north flank of the Kigluaik Mountains, about 40 miles north of Nome. The company drilled 22 holes at the site this summer until weather "chased them out" in late October. Those holes yielded core samples — long tubes of rock that offer a view of the geology deep inside the deposit — and show anywhere from 4.5 percent to more than 12 percent graphite, potentially making the deposit the second-largest graphite resource in the world.

But going from a deposit to a mine is a prospect Graphite One chairman Doug Smith said is still anywhere from three to five years of studies and permitting away. He said this summer's third round of sampling goes toward building a case for potential investors as to the mineral quality of the deposit, as well as how it could be used commercially.

"Basically there will be several types of graphite," he said while waiting for a flight out of Nome on Thursday morning. "There will be large flake, there could be amorphous lump, (and) each one of those types will make a different product. One particular product is a coated spherical graphite … and that would go into the lithium ion battery market. And so, what we have to determine is exactly what we have, and what the potential end products are."

In October, Graphite One was in Nome to discuss the project with locals; some residents from Teller, Brevig Mission and Mary's Igloo were able to attend, but many were not, which led to this week's meeting in Teller with the most immediate stakeholders near the potential mine.

Much as it was during the meeting in Nome, details on the project were far from final, definitive answers were few, questions about the mine's impact were many, and the promise of jobs and economic development were nebulous. At the meeting Wednesday with residents from Teller and Mary's Igloo, the prospect of jobs was again mentioned, but checked by the potential impacts on lifestyle and subsistence. Mary's Igloo Tribal Coordinator Cora Ablowaluk attended Wednesday's meeting with Graphite One in Teller.

In Teller, "we're not sure about this whole mine yet," she said.

"They come in and say they're going to create jobs and create infrastructure for us, but we're kind of neutral to it right now because we don't know the outcome of everything. We're more worried about our subsistence than we are of anything else."

Ablowaluk said those concerns come from what a mine could leave behind in the environment: chemicals, tailings, and overburden. While graphite can be separated from ore using acid leaching, Graphite One general manager David Hembree said the company is considering a less chemical and a more mechanical approach.

"Graphite processing is much simpler, I'd say, than gold, silver, copper, lead, zinc ores," he said. "You use a floatation process. Graphite does not like water. It's hydrophobic. So it likes to float on top of water, so you can separate, skim the graphite off of the water." He explained equipment known as frothers could be used to further increase the purity of any yield.

That kind of graphite processing, he added, means "there's no cyanide, mercury, or any of the chemicals they do use in gold and silver and other metal mines."

Ablowaluk said the possibility of a graphite mine is just one of several recent developments she said people in Teller and Mary's Igloo view as a potential disruption to their way of life. Nome's gold mining has threatened to spill over into Grantley Harbor just east of Brevig Mission and Teller, and the naturally deep water of Port Clarence to the west has been consistently mentioned as a leading candidate for a deep-water Arctic port.

"Right now, we're mainly more worried about the deep-water port and how that's going to effect our fish, because it's not only going to effect Teller, Brevig and Mary's Igloo people, it's going to effect the Pilgrim River and everybody who fishes in the Pilgrim River also," Ablowaluk said.

"We don't want the large ships in our subsistence area. We're finally getting a lot of seals back after the Port Clarence station shut down, and they're going to disappear again."

As the residents of Mary's Igloo, Teller and Brevig Mission weigh the potential consequences of a graphite mine in their back yard, Graphite One representatives said they will use their data from the summer to build a "preliminary economic assessment" of the deposit, which should be done by May. The company plans to use that assessment to raise funding with new investors and plan for a return trip for more drilling in the coming summer.

This article was originally published at KNOM.org and is reprinted here with permission.

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