Hudbay has additional processing in mind, not mining, with its planned purchase of the long-idle New Britannia gold mine in Snow Lake.
The deal, worth as much as US$17.3 million, is expected to close next week, giving Hudbay a mill, a former mine and dozens of unsurveyed mineral claims.
Rob Winton, vice-president, Manitoba Business Unit for Hudbay, said the transaction adds potential flexibility to processing options at its Lalor mine near Snow Lake.
“The timing of this acquisition works well as the current Lalor mine plans [have] us accessing gold ore in future years,” he said. “Having the capability to maximize gold recovery of these ores is the opportunity this purchase presents.”
The purchase, announced late last week, will give Hudbay two Snow Lake area mills capable of serving Lalor: the Stall Lake concentrator and the New Britannia mill.
That raises questions around the company’s previously announced plan to build a new state-of-the-art mill at Lalor.
“We have not finalized the decision on building a new mill at Lalor, but a decision is expected in the near future,” said Winton.
Marc Jackson, a Reminder contributor and publisher of Snow Lake’s newspaper, would be shocked if plans for a new mill proceed.
“I can’t for the life of me see them owning two mills and then building another,” he said.
For some, the bigger surprise out of the announcement is the fact that Hudbay has no plans to reopen the New Britannia mine even though the price of gold is strong and the mine has several more years of life.
While there are no such plans, Winton won’t rule out the possibility.
“Never say never,” he said.
“If there comes a time where mining at New Britannia meets business or strategic needs, this decision could be changed.”
Winton called the pending purchase “a very positive achievement for Hudbay in Manitoba,” one that “further demonstrates our commitment to mining in Manitoba.”
“Our immediate next step is to begin assessing what potential value can be realized in the long term,” he said.
“At this point we have an asset that has been on care and maintenance for 10 years. The technical and business due diligence required to bring these assets into Hudbay Manitoba will take several months.”
Winton further said the deal consolidates Hudbay’s land ownership in a prospective camp in which it has “a long history of exploration and operating success.”
New Britannia’s current owner, Toronto-based junior miner QMX Gold Corp., includes the mine, mill and 43 mineral claims totalling over 4,840 hectares as part of its Snow Lake Project.
Brett New, president and CEO of QMX, said his company remains confident in the property but looks forward to using proceeds from the sale to focus on its Quebec assets.
“I’m very pleased to announce that Hudbay, a well-established Canadian mineral producer, will be acquiring the Snow Lake Project,” New said in a press release.
Jackson said he would be surprised if Hudbay ever decided to mine New Britannia given the mine’s historic grades in comparison to those at Lalor.
“But I guess it’s not out of the question,” he said. “Most in Snow Lake welcome the news and will be excited to see the lights on in something other than a camp up on that hill [where the mine sits].”
Jackson hopes the transaction will draw more people and investment to Snow Lake.
New Britannia mine, originally known as the Nor-Acme mine, operated from 1949 to 1958 and again from 1995 to 2005.
At the time of its most recent closure, New Brit employed about 190 people, though it’s not clear how many worked in the mill versus the mine.
Hudbay’s deal to purchase the site will see it pay US$12.3 million in cash and a potential contingency payment of US$5 million.
The contingency amount is payable on the third anniversary of the closing date of the deal, provided the price of gold is equal to or greater than US$1,400 an ounce at that time.
The transaction is expected to close on or about next Thursday, April 30, and is subject to regulatory and third party approvals and customary conditions.
Winton said the opportunity to buy New Brit surfaced in February. Hudbay then worked on the first phase of due diligence required to reach a decision on whether to proceed.
“Business opportunities can present themselves at any moment,” Winton said. “Part of Hudbay’s growth strategy includes acquisitions that match our criteria, so we have the resources to assess and act when they prove to be attractive.”
Winton pointed out that the deal means Hudbay is assuming the site’s environmental liabilities.
“Hudbay is taking over the ongoing environmental monitoring at [the site] and will work with the regulatory authorities to ensure all required standards are met,” he said.
“The benefit to the Snow Lake area in this respect is our track record of environmental management, which will extend to the property we are acquiring.”
New Britannia, which brought the community of Snow Lake into being, is one of the most storied mineral properties in northern Manitoba history.
The high-tonnage, low-grade ore body has spawned countless companies and undergone three name changes. Initially dubbed the Nor-Acme mine, the property has also been known as the Britannia mine, the New Britannia mine and, most recently, the Snow Lake mine.
The Snow Lake mine title never really stuck, with Winton and many other northerners preferring to call it New Britannia, or New Brit for short.
So if Hudbay is to operate at the site, what will the property be called?
“Any naming decision will be done during our due diligence business process and will ensure we honour the traditions of that property,” Winton said, “and the history of Hudbay operations in and around Snow Lake.”
A cyclical history
Snow Lake’s New Britannia mine, commonly called New Brit, has a long and cyclical history.
A prospector initially staked the land that would comprise the mine in 1925.
In 1941, a company called Nor-Acme Gold optioned the claims to the Howe Sound Exploration Company Ltd. in exchange for a mining royalty.
Over the next two years a large, low-grade gold deposit was delineated and, after a period of inactivity during the Second World War, construction of the mine infrastructure began in August 1945.
In 1949, the mine opened as the Nor-Acme mine. The mine operated until 1958.
TVX Gold Inc. and High River Gold Mines Ltd. formed a joint venture in 1994 and in November 1995 reopened the mine as New Britannia mine.
In November 2003, the owners of New Brit issued a statement indicating the mine would close at an undetermined date if efforts to extend its life proved unsuccessful.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the mine closed again in January 2005, at which time it was placed on care and maintenance – a temporary (or potentially permanent) closure.
About 190 people were left out of work. Snow Lake’s economy was devastated as many workers left for mines in Thompson, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Mexico, though a fair number found work with HBM&S, now Hudbay.
Over the next decade, New Brit was the subject of numerous reopening plans and rumours, none of which materialized even as the price of gold skyrocketed.
In 2010, Alexis Minerals, which later became QMX Gold Corp., released a preliminary study suggesting the mine could operate for another six years.
In the spring of 2014, junior miner Northern Sun Mining announced plans to purchase New Brit and potentially reopen it by early 2016, creating some 100 jobs. The deal never happened.
“Whenever I hear people talk of the days of New Brit, it is with fondness,” says Marc Jackson, a Reminder contributor and owner of Snow Lake’s newspaper. “They were treated very well and the mine was one of the safest in Canada during its run. If underground operations were to [start again], I’m sure there would be a lineup to bulletin over to it.”
– With files from QMX Gold Corp.