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Junior miners thriving

By IAN ROSS When Resident Geologist Mike Cosec files his annual report, 2006 will be marked as a year of obvious change in the Sudbury Basin.


When Resident Geologist Mike Cosec files his annual report, 2006 will be marked as a year of obvious change in the Sudbury Basin.

Sure, there were the mega-takeovers of Inco and Falconbridge by CVRD and Xstrata, but junior mining companies have kept the exploration drills turning, thanks to robust mineral prices.

More than 15 exploration programs dot the rim of the Sudbury crater by mid-tier and juniors such as FNX Mining, Wallbridge Mining, Ursa Major Minerals, Pacific North West Capital Corporation, Namex Explorations and Champion Bear Resources all working side-by-side with the majors.

A few projects are at the very advanced stage of exploration where new base metals mines will soon be opened. For years, conventional wisdom in the Sudbury mining camp was the Big Two. Inco and Falconbridge had staked and scoped out every square foot of the basin. After all, there’s been mining in Sudbury since 1886, so there was the presumption that all the good ground had been taken.

“That’s what everybody thought,” says Cosec, a district geologist with the Ontario Geological Survey (OGS). “My recommendation is don’t trust the old knowledge of what everybody says. Go to the claims map and the land registry office and find out. If you’re really interested, you’ll make the effort. It’s like buying a lottery ticket and not checking your numbers.”

In the late 1990’s, junior miners were practically unheard of in Sudbury until Pacific North West starting drilling for platinum group metals (PGM) in River Valley, east of Sudbury. Coinciding with the rise of platinum and palladium prices in 2001 into the $700 per ounce range, prospectors and other miners began questioning who owned what property. Quietly they began to pick up land.

Today, the footwalls of the Sudbury Basin, and previously underexplored offset dykes radiating out many kilometres from the Sudbury Igneous Complex, are the targets of much heightened activity.

“It continues to amaze me that these offset dykes are being found with just a bit of digging.” says Cosec.”

The dykes may not produce the elephant-type deposits that resulted in Inco’s 100-year-old Creighton Mine, but have the potential to produce smaller, high-grade deposits.

When Cosec arrived in Sudbury in 1990, CVRD-Inco’s Copper Cliff North Mine contained 18 deposits.

Exploration has expanded it to 25 with the mine growing from a small 400 to a 4,000-tonne-per-day producer. It is uncertain if the new discoveries are a result of better technology or better knowledge of the area’s geology. Cosec admits, “It took me a long time to learn the rocks in Sudbury.”

Other geologists educated him on noticing the subtle changes in the salt and pepper textures of chalcopyrite, an indicator mineral found in sulphide deposits, which can host high-grade PGM zones.

As well, technological advancements in ground surveying equipment, particularly with a down-hole geophysics device called the UTEM (University of Toronto Electromagnetic) system has been accredited with the discoveries of several base metal deposits.

Juniors like Wallbridge Mining have used new modeling, while making a concerted effort to acquire relatively virgin territory around Sudbury, outside of the so-called ‘shadow of the headframe’ or known deposits.

Inco and Falconbridge controlled most of the ‘contact’ properties on the edge of the Sudbury crater. But the footwalls beyond the contact were never really explored.

Wallbridge began to pick up these properties and identified a new low sulphide highly-grade PGE mineralization, which they began drilling.

Bruce Jago, Wallbridge’s vice-president of exploration, says their models were a matter of re-interpreting existing geological data from a different angle. He is overseeing exploration on five properties including a preliminary economic assessment, of their Broken Hammer Zone, a high-grade PGE- gold-copper project at their Wisner property on Sudbury’s north range.

Elsewhere, new mines are being built. Xstrata Nickel is sinking the shaft on their new Nickel Rim South mine and plans to spend $18 million on a second project to better define a 4.9 million tonnes measured nickel-ore body near their Fraser Mine.

FNX Mining has sunk a 2,690-foot vertical shaft and exploration drift on their Podolsky property. Ursa Major Minerals is seeking permitting approvals to bring their Shakespeare project west of Sudbury into production as an open pit and Pacific Northwest Capital’s River Valley has definition drilling underway in preparation for an eventual pit, northeast of Sudbury. Cosec says there are other prospective properties around. It’s just a matter of junior miners and prospectors doing their research in  the Ontario Geological Survey mines library.