November 20, 2018 01:31 PM
In a rare step, one of the largest mining companies in the world is drilling to find gold deposits on state-owned land in northern Minnesota – an exploratory move that it hopes will eventually lead to a mine being approved in years to come.
Anglo Gold Ashanti, a South African mining company, has already drilled on more than a 100 sites in northern Itasca County and plans to drill on 30 more sites this winter.
This is the third consecutive year the company has conducted exploratory drilling. Its search for gold began shortly after the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) identified a "previously unrecognized area of high gold potential" in that area in 2015.
Promising samples, concerned residents
Tim Thompson, Vice President of Growth and Exploration at Anglo Gold Ashanti, says the drilling has not yet uncovered any gold, but acknowledged that bedrock samples have been promising.
"For every 1,000 prospects that are investigated, only about three turn into mines," Thompson cautioned in an interview.
The increase in drilling, which has rarely been done by companies in the past due to costs, has caught the attention of local cabin owners like Mary Darner and Denny Pavek.
"It's exploratory, but that's the first step with something happening," said Pavek, who bought his cabin on Bear Lake near Togo, Minnesota, 13 years ago because he thought the area was pristine.
"Having a gold mine down the street wouldn't be too pristine," he said.
Darner, whose family has spent summers on Bear Lake for nearly 70 years, says it would be "disastrous."
"We would lose the solitude, the nurturing environment that this is," she said.
She said she fears the success of a new open pit gold mine across the border in Canada has encouraged mining companies to drill in northern Minnesota because they figure "there's got to be something here."
Mining trends extending into Minnesota
George Hudak, director of the minerals and metallurgy initiative at the University of Minnesota Duluth's Natural Resources Research Institute, says Darner is right—the gold trends being mined in Canada could likely extend into Minnesota.
"To put it bluntly, we have the right kind of rocks, the right kind of structures … there may be gold here," Hudak said.
He said that mining companies are looking for quartz-vein gold—the same type that sparked the California gold rush in the mid-1800s.
"It's very similar to what they find in…. gold belts in California," Hudak said.
Anglo Gold Ashanti is able to drill on state-owned land because of the DNR's Metallic Mineral Leases program which was established in 1967.
In a statement, DNR Assistant Commissioner Barb Naramore said that the program "encourages private investors to take the risk to discover new mineral deposits" while causing little disruption to the land.
The leases generate an average of $335,000 a year that primarily goes to STATE education funding.
The DNR refused to allow state-employed experts to be interviewed for this story.
Gold exploration in Minnesota has been going on for more than a hundred years but only small amounts have been found, according to the DNR. In the past 50 years, mining companies have drilled holes on less than three-percent of all state leases.
Yet, Anglo Gold Ashanti appears to be making the biggest bet that gold is actually buried in Minnesota's bedrock. In addition to actively drilling, the company holds more than half—271—of the state's 533 metallic mineral leases, according to the DNR.
"Over time, we'll start dropping those leases and narrowing things down," said Thompson. "If we are successful …we will look to do future exploration activities."
Thompson said the company is using a different, less-invasive technique called roto-sonic drilling in its explorations. It drills more holes at shallower depths. Instead of drilling hundreds of feet into the bedrock, the company takes samples from 40 to 60 feet below the surface. The holes are then sealed with concrete.
Thompson says that even if exploratory drilling was to unearth gold, a mine would not actually open for another 12 to 20 years because of permits and environmental reviews.
Low odds and long timelines do not offer much comfort to Mary Darner. She fears the recent increase in drilling is just the beginning.
"Nine square miles of exploration right next to us feels a bit threatening," Darner said.
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Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story did not list the correct number of mineral leases held by Anglo Gold Ashanti. That number has been updated with the correct information.
Updated: November 20, 2018 01:31 PM
Created: November 19, 2018 10:43 AM
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