Known as America’s “last frontier,” Alaska still has a great deal of untapped potential in terms of resource development. Already the nation’s largest silver and zinc-producing state and the second largest gold producer in the United States, NovaCopper President and CEO Rick Van Nieuwenhuyse says his company sees Alaska’s Ambler mining district as a great opportunity. “We want to add to that and become the largest copper producer in the country,” he says.
Van Nieuwenhuyse started NovaCopper in 2011 as a subsidiary of NovaGold, a gold-focused exploration company he founded 20 years ago. As NovaGold focused on taking its world-class Donlin Gold Project into permitting, Van Nieuwenhuyse and his exploration team remained focused on its relatively smaller projects in the Ambler mining district, known as the Upper Kobuk Mineral Projects (UKMP). To keep NovaGold and NovaCopper focused on their respective strengths, the decision was made in 2012 to spin NovaCopper off into its own independent entity.
Today [at time of writing], as the company marks its fifth anniversary, NovaCopper remains focused on its work on the promising UKMP. Recently, the company changed its name to Trilogy Metals Inc. in recognition of the company’s success in defining a diversified metals resource base of 8 billion pounds of copper, 2 billion pounds of zinc and over 1 million ounces of gold equivalents at the UKMP. Van Nieuwenhuyse says the company is excited about the possibilities for the future expansion of the UKMP metals endowment to the scale of the historic Mount Isa mining area in Australia. Thanks to the favorable environment for resource development in Alaska and the extensive experience of the company’s leadership, Trilogy Metals has the pieces in place to bring copper to a greater place of prominence in Alaska. “We hope we can develop mining operations in Northwest Alaska that will have mines producing well in excess of 25 to 30 years,” Van Nieuwenhuyse says.
Located in the Ambler mining district in the northwestern region of Alaska, the UKMP’s most advanced projects are Arctic and Bornite deposits. Both are being developed by the company in conjunction with NANA Regional Corporation, Inc. – an Alaska Native corporation that has combined its land holdings with the company and has entrusted Van Nieuwehuyse and his team with the exploration and development of those holdings.
“One of the unique things we do in our approach is to partner with local communities,” Van Nieuwenhuyse says. He credits much of the success the company has had with the UKMP so far to the collaboration and cooperation it has had with NANA Regional Corporation, which he characterizes as a unique arrangement in today’s exploration environment. “We take care to ensure that our projects are embraced by the local communities, and that’s why our partnership with NANA is so important,” Van Nieuwenhuyse says.
Also working in the company’s favor is the unique nature of the projects. The region already is known for its high concentrations of copper, zinc, lead, silver and gold, and the company points out that the nearby Red Dog Mine is one of the world’s largest and highest-grade zinc mines. Although the Arctic and Bornite deposits were discovered in the 1950s, there has been little exploration on those projects until now. Van Nieuwenhuyse says his company sees significant upside in the two projects as a result, but the projects’ remote location will be the most significant challenge to realizing that upside.
The lack of exploration in the area containing the UKMP means the infrastructure necessary for a thriving mine operation is missing for the most part. Van Nieuwenhuyse says the projects are nearly 200 miles from the nearest roads, so getting a major road permitted and built to access the projects has been a significant goal. The company has been working with the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), the State’s development bank for P3 infrastructure projects, to launch the Ambler Mining District Industrial Access Project (AMDIAP). According to Van Nieuwenhuyse, AMDIAP will develop the access needed for the UKMP. “We are excited that AIDEA has submitted the documentation necessary to initiate the permitting process for AMDIAP, which we expect to take two to three years,” Van Nieuwenhuyse says.
In the meantime, the company is focused on continuing its progress with the UKMP. Van Nieuwenhuyse says his team has been busy completing studies in support of a pre-feasibility study and engineering tests to determine the most practical means of developing the projects. According to the company’s public filings, the Arctic deposit hosts a mineral resource with a copper-equivalent grade of approximately 6 percent, while the Bornite deposit has yielded drill intercepts of 3 percent copper grades. “These and other excellent results rival those of any copper project in any part of the world,” the company says.
Above all else, Van Nieuwenhuyse says the company is excited about the future because of the support it has received from NANA Regional Corporation, AIDEA and Alaska’s mining-friendly atmosphere. With the experience the team brings to the area, Van Nieuwenhuyse says, it has a winning formula for the future. “What sets us apart is that we’re developing a very high-grade, high-quality copper project in a very safe jurisdiction,” he says.
[Details correct at time of writing]