A mothballed tungsten mine along the N.W.T./Yukon border hasn't been in operation for more than two years, but one exploration company hopes the mine's now silent mill might help a nearby lithium deposit see the light of day.
Vancouver-based Equitorial Exploration Corp. is set to ramp up an extensive drill program this summer at its Little Nahanni Pegmatite Group property, located in the Dehcho region, in search of the metal. It plans to spend between $1 and $2 million to carry out the work.
Equitorial CEO Jack Bal says his company could be ready to explore the use of Cantung's mill after this summer's drill program is over.
"We'd be interested in talking [to the government] to see if we could use their facility," he said. "If we could create a concentrate that could be sold ... and that facility does work with our ore, then the economics of our project become better very quickly."
Bal explained the biggest hurdle for a new mining project is usually a lack of infrastructure, but in the case of this property, there is already year-round access thanks to the former road to Cantung and a separate road to the Howard's Pass zinc deposit, which is also nearby.
Tom Hoefer, executive director of the N.W.T./Nunavut Chamber of Mines, was impressed by Bal's ideas for Cantung's mill.
"Trying to re-purpose a mine that's already there, that's really innovative thinking," he said. "It'd be interesting if that could happen, it would certainly be more attractive for their costs.
"But even for government that's looking at a cleanup bill [for Cantung] at this point, this could offer some great assistance."
Cleanup for Cantung in federal hands
When North American Tungsten, the mining company that formerly operated Cantung, went bankrupt in 2015, the mine was essentially abandoned.
The devolution agreement, signed in 2014, saw management of lands and resources pass from federal to territorial hands. That included responsibility for mine cleanup.
The agreement stated that the federal government would continue to be responsible for mines in operation prior to devolution, including Cantung. But there's a catch.
North American Tungsten had used another mineral lease — for a nearby tungsten deposit called Mactung — alongside cash as collateral for Cantung's cleanup costs. Mactung went up for sale during the receivership process, but according to the N.W.T. government, nobody came forward with an acceptable bid.
A clause in the devolution agreement required the N.W.T. government to buy the Mactung lease for $2.5 million as a stipulation for the federal government to take over responsibility for Cantung.
Cantung remains available for purchase. Stephanie Palma, a spokesperson for Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, told CBC in an email that the department "remains open to expressions of interest in [Cantung]."
Drew Williams, a spokesperson for the N.W.T. Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, told CBC in an email the current permits for the Cantung mine and mill are specifically for mining tungsten.
"A lithium deposit, however, would have different waste outputs so the current licence, at a minimum, would have to be amended," he stated. "It could be referred to assessment if changes were substantial enough."
Alvarez & Marsal Canada Inc. is the court-ordered monitor of care and maintenance operations at the Cantung mine. Management with Equitorial Exploration says it has reached out to Alvarez & Marsal on the future of the mine, but no formal agreement between the two companies has been reached.
Growing appetite for lithium
Demand for lithium has been soaring in recent years, with the development of electric cars, solar panels and rechargeable lithium-ion batteries.
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In 2005, global lithium prices sat at around $2,000 per metric tonne. Starting in 2015, the price started to rapidly grow as these technologies became more economical.
Today, the price sits at around $9,000 per metric tonne, according to metal price watch website metalary.com.