A Canadian mining company plans to buy nearly 7,000 acres in northern Maine to explore for deposits of copper, silver and other minerals in what could be the first major mining project since lawmakers overhauled state environmental regulations.
Wolfden Resources Corp., which is based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, announced Thursday a purchase-and-sale agreement to buy the 6,871 acres of timberland and accompanying mineral rights on Pickett Mountain for $8.5 million. Located north of Patten along the border of Penobscot and Aroostook counties, Pickett Mountain was first listed as the site of a sizable mineral ore deposit – known as the “Mount Chase deposit” – nearly 40 years ago but has never been mined commercially.
Company officials said they believe the Pickett Mountain site holds one of North America’s “highest-grade undeveloped” deposits of the type of sulfide ore that yields copper, zinc, silver and other metals. Yet the mountain’s proximity to the newly established Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument parts of which are just 5 miles away – and to Baxter State Park would trigger close scrutiny from conservation groups and local residents should the company attempt to mine the site.
“I’m very familiar with that whole area back there. It’s so beautiful and scenic,” said Katahdin Lodge co-owner Chuck Loucka, whose Moro Plantation business catering to outdoor enthusiasts is located a few miles from Pickett Mountain. “I’d hate to see it spoiled in any way.”
Observers said it would likely be years before Wolfdn or any subsequent entity could even apply for the complex permits required by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection to extract minerals. But the timing of Wolfden’s announcement is significant because it came exactly three months after the Maine Legislature passed a new law re-writing Maine’s metallic mining regulations following a years-long stalemate on the issue.
In a news release, Wolfden suggested passage of that bill, L.D. 820, factored into the company’s decision to explore Pickett Mountain and the Mount Chase deposit.
“Interest in the geology and potential for (volcanogenic massive sulphide) projects like the Pickett Mountain Project has revived with zinc and copper price appreciation and the opening up of the mining permitting regime under specific prescribed limitations,” Wolfden said in the statement. “Wolfden sees significant exploration opportunity in this jurisdiction that it believes is vastly under-explored.”
The law passed by the Legislature – with the support of many of Maine’s largest environmental organizations – bans larger open pit mines as well as underwater storage of mine waste. The law also prohibits mining under state lands and requires companies to set aside money to cover the costs of cleaning up or treating any environmental contamination for at least 100 years after a mine’s closure.
Some environmentalists and mining opponents argued the new law was not strong enough because it allows open-pit mines smaller than 3 acres and could lead to groundwater contamination from difficult-to-control pollution plumes. Mining advocates saw it as a step forward, however, because it replaces decades-old regulations that had essentially shut down metallic mining in Maine.
Wolfden said the purchase of the land – from an unidentified seller – is subject to the completion of a 45-day due diligence review, but that the company “plans to begin drilling in the near future with a mineral resource estimate planned in 2018.”
A Wolfden representative did not immediately return a call seeking comment on Thursday. According to the company’s statement, Wolfden is a mineral exploration company with interests in Manitoba and northern New Brunswick. Corporate filings show that the company has yet to move from exploration to actual mining at any of the sites. The most recent quarter report stated that Wolfden has lost more than $17 million (U.S. dollars) since 2009, including more than $800,000 during the first two quarters of 2017.
“The corporation is in the business of exploring for, with the ultimate goal of producing, mineral resources from our mineral exploration properties,” the company stated in the “risks” section of a recent earnings statement. “None of our properties have commenced commercial production and we have no history of earnings or cash flow from our operations. As a result of the foregoing, there can be no assurance that we will be able to develop any of our properties profitably or that our activities will generate positive cash flow.”
In order to help Wolfden finance the Pickett Mountain deal, Altius Minerals Corp. of Canada agreed to provide $3.5 million in exchange for a share in Wolfden as well as a percentage of any sales from the mine.
Located a few miles north of the small town of Hersey just off Route 11, the summit of Pickett Mountain stands roughly 1,750 feet above sea level and is close to 2,440-foot Mount Chase, a local landmark. The so-called “Mount Chase deposit” is among eight documented “significant deposits” of metallic minerals scattered along either the coast or along the “northern Maine belt” stretching from Coburn Gore in the western mountains to Bald Mountain outside Presque Isle.
A 1979 exploration of the Mount Chase deposit estimated 2.4 million tons of sulfide containing zinc, lead, copper and silver. That is modest compared to the estimated 30 million tons of sulfide containing gold and copper at Bald Mountain, which is about 30 miles west of Presque Isle in the heart of Aroostook County. Bald Mountain’s owner, New Brunswick-based timberland company J.D. Irving Ltd,, sparked the contentious, five-year-long debate over whether to rewrite Maine’s mining regulations, culminating in the passage of L.D. 820 in June.
Robert Marvinney, state geologist and director of the Maine Geological Survey, said the consensus among those who have examined Pickett Mountain is that the ore deposits can only be developed using underground shaft mines. Marvinney said the only larger-scale shaft mine to operate in Maine was the Kerramerican or Black Hawk Mine in Blue Hill during the 1960s and 1970s.
While surprised at how quickly a mining exploration company has responded to the passage of the mining bill, Marvinney said any permitting process for Pickett Mountain is in the future.
“There is a long period of exploration that will come after this,” he said.
Nick Bennett, staff scientist and healthy waters director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, likewise said it is difficult to tell whether anything will come out of Wolfden’s planned purchase of the land.