Feature

Golden opportunity: A look inside the mine that holds Baie Verte's future

See how gold is produced, and how a gold mining boom is changing the lives of people in Baie Verte, N.L.

People in Baie Verte, N.L., are betting that gold mining is back to stay

The door opens on a raging fire licking from the furnace, heated to more than 1,000 C.

A young man named Zac Bailey inches toward it. He's dressed head to toe in a protective suit, like an astronaut or the Tin Man, and is pushing a heavy steel dolly, on which rests an even heavier steel mold.

Zac Bailey prepares to pour molten gold at the Anaconda mine in Baie Verte, N.L. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

He positions the mold directly beneath the furnace, then signals to another young man, Chris Budgell, to start cranking a large steel wheel. The wheel tilts the furnace forward, until a bright yellow liquid spills out into the mold below.

That liquid is molten gold.

To get it, Anaconda Mining put in years of effort and spent millions of dollars developing a mine on Newfoundland's Baie Verte peninsula.

The company's employees have spent days crushing thousands of tonnes of rock and processing it at an on-site mill, in a complex feat of engineering and chemistry.

Molten gold is poured in a steel mold. The result is a nearly pure gold bar. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

All of that effort has yielded a single shiny gold bar, which pops neatly out of the mold once the liquid gold has cooled. 

Budgell invites me to lift the bar; it feels so much much heavier than it looks.

As for what the bar is worth, Budgell sets it on a scale to come up with a price.

"Almost ten [kilograms] … that's probably 200 ounces," he said.

"Two hundred ounces at today's price … 350,000 [dollars] or so."

A gold bar, worth approximately $350,000. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

The mine

The Anaconda mine is one of two currently operating in the Baie Verte area, a region with a long history of rising and falling with the mining industry's booms and busts.

"We sort of died in 1981 with the closure of the asbestos mine," says Baie Verte Mayor Clar Brown.

"We were 3,000 population back in 1980s, and we're into the fourteen-hundreds right now. So it's a significant loss of people, and a loss of skilled people."

But now with Anaconda, and the nearby Rambler copper-gold mine, Brown said there's been a big upswing in the local mining industry — and with it, the regions prospects.

An excavator fills a dump truck with crushed rock in the open-pit mine. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

"The longer they [the mines] last, the longer the employees will be living in this town," he said. "The future of the town is dependent entirely on the two mines we have operating in this area."

Anaconda's Point Rousse mine has approximately 65 full-time employees. The mine's main contractor, a local company, employs another 23 people.

The vast majority of those employees are from the Baie Verte region, but the company CEO is definitely a CFA — come from away.

"Growing up in New Jersey, I never thought I'd find my way to Newfoundland," said Dustin Angelo.

"But you know, it's a great place, great people, hard working people. And if it wasn't for the people, we wouldn't be where we are today."

'A volume game'

Angelo said the company's development has been a slog, but the effort has paid off.

"When I first started, we were only producing 700 tonnes (of ore processed) per day. And if anybody's familiar with the mining industry, it's a real volume game," he said.

"Now, we're producing anywhere from 12- to 14-hundred tonnes a day. And we didn't put in any significant capital expenditures to do that. It was all about operational tweaks and experience, and being able to get more out of what we had."

Anaconda Mining CEO Dustin Angelo at the Rousse Point mine in Baie Verte, N.L. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

That added volume has helped the company triple gold production at the mine in the last five years. Every tonne of rock crushed yields about 1.5 grams of gold, an amount the size of a dime.

But all those dimes add up. The mine now produces 16,000 ounces of gold per year, generating between $20-25 million in revenue.

Angelo said much of that money has stayed in the Baie Verte area, adding Anaconda spends $4 million a year on wages, and another $13 million on purchasing from companies based in Newfoundland and Labrador.

The company also contributes to local non-profit and community organizations, according to Angelo.

Last year, he said it paid to fix up the ice-making equipment at the Baie Verte arena. It also provides free swimming lessons for approximately 150 children at the local pool.

"It's nice to be able to give back, and that sense of pride for our employees," said Angelo.

"It sort of feeds on itself, because once they know that we're here not just to make a profit but to help the local community, then they work harder in order to make that happen."

Young workforce

Meanwhile, much of the workers toiling away at the mines are locals — young ones.

"I feel extremely lucky," said Michelle Parsons, originally from Carmanville and a geology graduate from Memorial University.

"I'm in my home province, I can visit my family whenever I want. I'm pretty happy."

Her job involves analyzing samples of rock to determine where the gold is located, then tracking that gold after miners use explosives to blast it out of the ground.

"I knew there was lots of different types of jobs you could do, but gold seems to be where it's at. I think I'll stay here," she said.

Crushed ore from the mine is processed at on-site mill. That's where you'll find Chris Budgell, a 24-year old MUN engineering graduate who oversees the milling operation.

Chris Budgell, a 24-year-old mill supervisor, shows off the steel balls that are used to break rocks in the early stage of the milling process. (Zach Goudie/CBC)

Budgell said it's a tough job; the milling process involves breaking the rock into pieces no larger than a few blood cells, then chemically separating the gold from the other elements.

It's a multi-stage process that takes days to complete, but Budgell said he appreciates the challenge.

"I love it, personally. It's only an hour away from my hometown where I grew up, so it gave me the opportunity to live at home," he said.

"It's a great place for learning and growing professionally. As well, it's just an awesome opportunity to help a great company grow."

The future

However, Angelo said his company's Point Rousse mine will be exhausted in a little more than two years.

But Anaconda has begun looking for more gold deposits.

Angelo said the company recently raised $2 million to conduct exploratory drilling near the current mine. It also has a new exploration project near Sop's Arm, on the Northern Peninsula.

"We're drilling about 17,000 meters between the two projects, looking to expand our resources and find higher grade resources, more than a gram or two grams per tonne," said Angelo.

"We do have some pretty big goals ahead of us. It's going to take a lot of time and effort but everybody's on board for the big win. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a project that will be around for a long, long time."

Jordan Cramm, a fifth-generation miner, wears a wedding ring made from gold produced at the mine where he works. (Zach Goudie/CBC)