Graphite One fields questions as mine exploration progresses
By Megan Gannon
Graphite One continues exploratory work this summer for its proposed graphite mine near the Imuruk Basin on the northern slope of the Kigluaik Mountains, which contains the largest-known natural graphite deposit in the United States.
Last week, the project’s leaders stood in front of about 50 Nomeites to make a case for the mine, offer updates on their progress and take questions about potential jobs, environmental impacts and public access to their planned road.
In a public meeting on Tuesday, May 31, at Old St. Joe’s, Nome Mayor John Handeland introduced the Graphite One delegation, who came equipped with door prizes, free pizza, sweatshirts and other swag.
“This is an opportunity, I think, for economic development into the future, and some community stability,” Handeland said. “And I’m just really happy with the Graphite folks and their commitment to our environment, at the same time as their efforts are to extract minerals.”
The company’s outgoing COO Stan Foo did most of the talking, and he emphasized that Graphite One is still in its exploration phase.
The company envisions an open pit mine that stretches about a mile long, a half-mile wide, and up to 1,000 feet deep in some areas of the steep terrain. A crew of up to 200 people would operate the mine year-round, living onsite during their shifts rather than commuting. The raw graphite would be processed onsite, ground into a powder and treated with chemicals in floatation vats to create a 95 percent graphite concentrate. Each day, roughly 3,000 tons of that concentrate would be trucked to Nome, requiring about 10 round trips over 20 miles of private industrial road and then about 28 miles of the Kougarok Road to the Port of Nome.
From the port, the company would ship that material to a manufacturing plant, likely in the Pacific Northwest; Graphite One is scouting locations in Washington State, where there is low-cost hydropower, Foo said. The material would be stored at the Port of Nome in the winter when barge travel is not possible.
Graphite One, which is based in Vancouver, Canada, ultimately aims to create a U.S. supply chain of high-grade coated spherical graphite for lithium-ion batteries, an essential component of many electric vehicles. The company raised about $24 million from investors last year. At market close on Tuesday, its stock was trading at $1.03 a share.
Foo said the company is still two to three years away from the permitting stage, and that permitting could take another one or two years, “optimistically.” If the project receives permits, they would probably need at least two seasons of construction before any mining begins, he said.
The company has been operating a 24-person camp built last year near the graphite deposit where they have been extracting long test-columns from of ground. The camp is accessible by helicopter and the company has established a staging area off the Kougarok Road. This summer they are also prospecting their 20-mile access road.
Much of the night’s discussion centered around Graphite One’s planned road use, and that access road, which would connect the mine to the Kougarok Road between mile 28 and mile 29 via Mosquito Pass and they propose it be maintained throughout the year.
“I have heard concerns, I’ve [also] had people very excited about the possibility of road access to that area,” Foo said. “I can see why. A lot of hunters, fishermen and snowmachiners have asked questions about that. Our proposal will be a private industrial road. But really that decision would be one the permitting process would evaluate and it will be on state land, so the Department of Natural Resources would provide guidance on whether it should be open or closed to the public through mining, and whether or not it should be reclaimed after mining.”
Loren Prosser, the project manager, also gave an update on the environmental studies on behalf of the permitting manager, Ed Fogels, who couldn’t be at the meeting. Prosser said that in 2021, the company finished mapping the surrounding wetlands. This year they will continue fish habitat surveys and water quality monitoring on water bodies like the Cobblestone River and its feeder streams.
The graphite deposit lies about two miles west of where the Cobblestone comes out of the mountains. Graphite Creek is the one creek that flows over the deposit, and the plan is to divert it around the pit.
“I think a lot of us know from experience of mines in the region, you really need to understand what the quality of water is in the existing area to understand what that baseline is,” Prosser said. “And that’s really an important part of not just this level of the project, but also if the project is to move ahead, and also even towards the end of the mine’s life, just understanding what is the baseline now before anything else changes.”
Graphite One has said that the project would offer good jobs for local people. When pressed on how the company plans to keep itself accountable for those promises, the leadership confirmed that they do not have any formal hiring policies that would give priority to local or Alaska Native workers. They did say they are looking into job-training programs targeting people who already live in Nome, Teller and Brevig Mission.
“We’re certainly interested in making sure we give opportunities for local people,” Foo said. “I don’t know if we have a formal preference, but we’d certainly be looking for those opportunities where local training entities could be a pathway to come work for us. We’d be attentive to that.”
A man in the audience asked how the company’s graphite products would be cost-competitive in the global market. Foo acknowledged that it would be “tough,” but said the question was “timely” amid political tensions that have highlighted vulnerabilities in the United States’ supply chain.
“We’re dependent on countries like China and others for really everyday products, and I think we’re finding ourselves in a position we don’t want to be in,” he said. “I think there’s a strong desire from the U.S. government and from the military to have these resources sourced and produced in the U.S. and maybe at a premium cost-wise, but we foresee that’s the direction the country may need to go.”
The company leadership also gave presentations in Brevig Mission and Teller last week. These annual meetings, which had been suspended for the last few years during the pandemic, are not part of any formal consultation process, Foo told The Nome Nugget. That will come later once the company starts applying for permits and regulatory agencies get involved. But currently they are consulting with a subsistence advisory committee.
One audience member asked for more active communication about the project, not just from Graphite One, but also from groups in the community that might be partnering or consulting with the mining company.
Larry Pederson, vice president of operations for the Bering Straits Native Corporation, stood to address that concern.
“Right now, our leadership is taking the stance of letting the process kind of play out to see what comes,” Pederson said. “At this point, we’re supportive of supporting them a little bit locally.” For example, Graphite One is leasing land for a satellite camp and renting a storage space from BSNC. The corporation was also providing flaggers for road closures caused by the company’s helicopter operations.
When asked for his major takeaways from the Nome meeting, Foo said that the question of road access would be an interesting discussion during the permitting process.
“My basic approach has always been, from a safety standpoint, you want a private road,” Foo said. “But it is on state land, so DNR is going to have a strong say on how they want that road operated.”
Mike Schaffner, who previously worked at Ambler Mining and is the newly appointed vice president of mining for Graphite One, also claimed that the decision would be largely dependent on the public’s input.
“Undoubtedly what you’ll find out is that the public opinion will determine whether or not it’s closed,” Schaffner said. “Every road that you put in in Alaska has been mandated by what they found during the 404 permitting process.”
Graphite One published its preliminary economic assessment in 2017, finding the project viable, with net present value after taxes at $616 million. Its next major document will be a prefeasibility study. The company had said last year that the report should be released by the end of 2021. At the meeting, the leadership said that the study should finally be ready sometime this month.