Teck in “wait and see” mode

by Tom Coombe -

If the PolyMet project comes to fruition, a second copper-nickel mining project near Babbitt could be next in line.
Representatives of Teck were in Babbitt last week, meeting with city officials to talk about their proposed mining venture about five miles south of town.
Market forces and other projects in the Canadian-based company’s mining portfolio are among the factors that will determine the timing of the Babbitt project, company officials said Thursday, but looming perhaps most prominently is the permitting of the PolyMet project between Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes.
“Everyone in the industry is waiting to see what happens with PolyMet,” said Catherine Suda, manager of U.S. Land and Assets for Teck. “We’re learning lessons from what they’re doing and how they’re doing it and guiding us for the future.”
PolyMet’s progress seems certain to play a large role in the direction of Teck, but company representatives also made clear that even a best-case scenario puts a mining operation many years away.
“This is something that is not going to be tomorrow,”said Andrew Thrift, environmental manager for Teck. “If you said ‘go’ right now there would be a couple of years collecting data, five-to-seven years of permitting, easily 10 years from operation.”
Teck’s project nonetheless continues to have a presence in Babbitt.
It has a storage facility in Babbitt and four full-time employees and another part-time worker.
Formerly known as Teck Cominco, the company acquired exploration leases for a vast deposit near Babbitt in 2000, and both Suda and Thrift said they were hopeful that progress would be made soon.
“That’s why we’re making the rounds,” said Ann Glumac, a Duluth-based consultant who works in public affairs for Teck. “We’ve been fairly quiet for a number of years. There has not been a lot of visible drilling, but part of our message is we haven’t been standing still.”
“You’re going to see some more (activity) and you’re going to be wondering what we’re doing,” added Suda.
Teck has two state leases and a private lease on what once was known as the AMEX property.
A proposed Teck mine near Babbitt would be an open pit venture, and the resource here makes it an attractive option, according to Thrift.
“By any stretch, this is a pretty big resource,” he said. “It’s substantial. We want to be in the game for a long time. We want to catch more of the up cycles (in the market).”
The history of mining in the region also makes the Babbitt location a viable option, company officials said.
Plans call for the company to mine copper, nickel and perhaps other metals.
“What do you do if you hit gold or palladium?” asked Babbitt council member Terry Switajewski.
“We jump for joy,” Thrift responded.
Thrift said that the Babbitt project must compete for resources with other projects under development by Teck, but he voiced optimism given the nature of the deposit and the stabilization of market prices.
“We’ve seen a lot of volatility,” said Thrift. “We’re coming out of some belt tightening.”
The result may be “more things on the ground,” within the next year in Babbitt while the company also tracks PolyMet, which is inching toward final permitting.
“The further PolyMet gets advanced, the easier it will be for us to answer questions,” said Thrift.
Suda said the company is also preparing for inevitable challenges and is “working right now to get more of a firm presence in Washington.”
Babbitt officials were unanimously favorable to the group and the project and noted the community’s mining history and its support for mining.
“You have the support of the entire council and 99 percent of the town,” said council member Jim Lassi.
Mayor Andrea Zupancich said Babbitt doesn’t have the divide that exists in Ely over mining projects.
“Ely has signs that say ‘we support mining’ and ‘mining kills,’” said Zupancich. “We’re totally different 15 miles away. I often think it would have been easier for Twin Metals (had the company established headquarters in Babbitt rather than Ely).”
Glumac said Teck’s history (it operates 11 mines across the globe) will be an asset as the project goes foward.
“One of the unique things about Teck is it has a really long history and a really long track record,” she said.