Canadians pull golden karats out of the ground

With headlights ablaze the old Canadian Army truck rattled up to the mouth of the gold mine and disappeared into the gloom inside. No sooner had it entered than it began descending a long slushy tunnel laboriously blasted from the pale gray breccia.

Four years ago zooming costs closed the Chadbourne Mine in this northwest Quebec town. But last year its owners, Noranda Mines, Ltd., of Toronto, one of Canada's largest companies, reopened it. And not a moment too soon it would appear, judging by the price of gold these days.

When the feasibility of reopening the mine was being considered in late 1977, as project director Serge Gagnon explains, gold had not yet begun its breakneck ascent in price. In fact, the bewitching yellow metal was only fetching some $ 200 an ounce when the mine began yielding up its valuable ore in January, 1979.

Noranda's foresight would appear to be paying off. With gold hovering around the $600 to $700 mark, Chadbourne is churning out ore at a rate of 20,000 to 24, 000 tons per month. And with every ton of rock (or "muck" as the miners call it) comes 0.145 ounces of gold. In a good month the mine produces between 2,000 and 2,500 ounces of the precious metal.

But, according to Victor Bryant, a mining executive at Noranda's nearby Horne Plant, Chadbourne gold is not selling at current market prices. Noranda, he says, contracted to sell its 1980 output at December, 1979, prices."You win some , you lose some," he says. "In this case they lost."

"In one way, mining here is easy," explains Mr. Gagnon, who lives in Noranda with his wife Christyann and their three children. "The stope or ore body is small and compact and there are lots of advantages to that," he says. But on the other hand, he adds that blasting has to be done with extreme care because the ore body lies within 500 feet of surrounding houses. A number of seismographs have been installed to keep a close watch on shock waves. At the moment, mining at Chadbourne is taking place between 90 and 250 feet below the surface and employing 20 men.

Down below us men are inserting charges for a 3:30 p.m. blasting. The truck slithers to a halt and I climb out with mine superintendent Rene Robertson. In the next few minutes I discover just how dated my notion of a gold mine was. I think I had expected to find a network of cramped tunnels with pallid miners (bearded, if possible, and wearing floppy prospectors' hats), lamps slung from beams, chipping away at veins of gold with pickaxes. It was a vision more appropriate to the California of the 1850s.

The Chadbourne mine is thoroughly modern. With ore trucks grinding in and out of it all day, it is necessarily cavernous.

As we slush through puddles in rubber boots with enormous protective toecaps, the lamps on our helmets pick out the iron pyrite in the breccia. It glints back at us. "That's what they call fool's gold," says Mr. Robertson, stopping to talk to two miners who are preparing for the afternoon blasting.

The air is dank in the tunnel, or drift,m as the miners call it. Water is dripping from the roof, which, in places, is swathed in wire mesh and reinforced with metal stays to prevent rockfalls. Somewhere in the darkness there is the hiss of compressed air. In the distance a fan pumping air into the mine is dully roaring.

Nobody does any drilling at the rockface in the Chadbourne mine. The ore is blasted free from the stope, scooped up by a front-end loader, and dumped on a large metal sieve known as a grizzly,m where a rock-breaking machine belabors the larger boulders.

The rock tumbles through to a chute where trucks pick it up and carry it away to a surface bin to await processing at the Horne plant, some two miles away.

"I'm very proud of our mine," says Mr. Gagnon, who is far more interested in running an efficient operation than speculating in gold. "You work so much, you don't have time to be an expert in that kind of field," he says. "We're doing well. We've achieved the grade we were expecting."

Renewed activity at the Chadbourne mine reflects the generally brighter outlook that Canadian mining has enjoyed over the past year.

"Prices for most metals have advanced," Maurice Brown, editor of the Northern Miner, says. "Also, governments, both federal and provincial, seem to be taking a closer look at their crippling taxation policies."

While observing that many marginal gold mines are becoming a viable operation again, where once the price-cost squeeze all but wiped out profits, Mr. Brown laments "the lack of grass-roots efforts to create new mines -- particularly gold mines."

He asserts that "one of the important missing ingredients in restoring the industry to its former health is the prospector whose efforts in the first place were responsible for most of our major mines."

But he can take heart. According to Mr. Bryant, a British mining engineer who worked for many years in the Zambian copper belt, "We've got prospectors coming out of the woodwork what with these high gold prices."

In 1978 Canada produced 2 million ounces of gold from 22 mines. This year many more mines will be in operation. If it isn't exactly a Klondike, it's something of a landmark in Canada's mineral history that will help satisfy the passion for the world's most alluring metal.

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