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Business/Economy

Unique state-owned prospect a highlight as spending on Alaska mineral exploration rebounds

Eighteen large exploration projects across the state are targeting “every metal under the sun,” said one exploration contractor.

Mineral exploration is on the rebound in Alaska and a unique state-owned prospect is showing promise.

Garnet is one of the most common minerals in the world and is abundant at the Icy Cape prospect being explored in Southeast by the Alaska Mental Health Land Office. Occurring in almost any color, it is most widely known for its beauty as a gem stone. Because of its hardness and other properties, garnet is also an essential industrial mineral used in abrasive products, non-slip surfaces, and filtration. (US Geological Survey)

Nearly $150 million was spent prospecting mostly for large mine opportunities in the state last year and likely in 2019, according to Curt Freeman, president of Fairbanks-based Avalon Development Corp.

That is up from just more than $50 million three and four years ago, but off from a peak of roughly $350 million per year in the late 2000s, when substantial work was being done at the Pebble deposit. The figures were compiled with data from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.

Freeman tallied 18 large exploration projects across the state for “every metal under the sun,” he said.

“It was a pretty good year for exploration all the way around.”

However, he noted Alaska’s six metal mines are all large operations and the state does not have a single midsize producing mine.

As is the challenge for many industries in the state, the high cost of operating in very remote places often requires very large and inherently complex projects to be economic.

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The Alaska Mental Health Trust Land Office is exploring a growing heavy mineral prospect it owns at Icy Cape on the exposed Gulf of Alaska coast between Cordova and Yakutat.

Trust Land Office minerals and energy manager Karsten Eden said simply the prospect of industrial-use minerals is commercially viable and contains significant quantities of in-demand minerals such as garnet and epidote — as well as gold.

“Every sample has gold in it,” Eden said of the drilling work that’s been done there.

He spoke Nov. 5 at the Alaska Miners Association convention in Anchorage.

When it started in 2017, the focus of the exploration was on the beach sands that underlie the spruce forests along the coast at Icy Cape. Now the resource delineation work has shifted to the deeper sediments, Eden said.

Since 2017 the Trust Land Office has had 13,000 feet of core samples drilled from boreholes down to 300 feet, he said.

The Trust Land Office manages roughly 1 million acres of land across Alaska for real estate and resource development purposes, the proceeds of which go to fund the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority’s work to benefit Alaskans with mental health and addiction challenges.

Specifically, the multi-heavy mineral prospect consists of abrasives garne and epidote, and zircon, magnetite and gold.

They are present across most of the 48,000-acre property, which is closed to public access, but the exploration team is interested in 23,000 acres of it, according to Eden.

The magnetite allowed the Trust Land Office to fly a magnetic survey of the area to better hone in on prospective areas to drill, he said.

Different layers of the area’s marine sediments are largely composed of similar minerals, just in consistently different sizes, he said. That can be beneficial when marketing the processed minerals as certain grain sizes are used for certain applications.

“Where you have the highest concentration of heavy minerals you definitely have the highest concentrations of gold,” Eden said.

Tests of the minerals’ characteristics by industrial users and labs indicate Icy Cape has “elements of prime quality,” he added, also noting that industrial manufacturers want large prospects that they can count on to produce for 15 years or more.

Garnet, a fairly hard, multi-use mineral is in high demand, according to Eden.

“The main producer India doesn’t export anymore so people are looking for garnets,” he said.

Further resource evaluation will be coordinated with the ongoing logging of various portions of the property to take advantage of increased access to portions of it, according to the Trust Land Office.

Eden said the next steps are to compile a formal resource evaluation while looking for a private partner to lead development of the prospect.

That work would likely include building a port facility to handle supply shipments and mineral exports.

“Gold you can always fly out,” he said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at elwood.brehmer@alaskajournal.com.