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Troy Mine finds way to survive

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| October 27, 2009 12:00 AM

Bruce Clark shut off his truck headlights, leaving only the glow of his parking beams so as not to blind an oncoming vehicle.

Once the vehicle passed, darkness enveloped the space. It was the middle of the morning, but the 30-foot ceiling and labyrinth of roads disappeared.

“It’s as dark as it’s ever going to get,” Clark said, as if answering a question.

Literally, yes, without the lights of the pickups and loaders and jumbo drills or without the glow attached to the miners’ hard hats that make them appear as aliens while they look down at their clipboards or talk on their radios, Troy Mine would be darker than the blackest night above ground.

But metaphorically, the mine was darker in the winter when silver and copper prices took a nose-dive and about 180 workers received notices that they may soon be out of a job. The darkness rippled to Troy and Libby and even further out when the mine that paid $1.4 million in taxes to the state in 2006 and provided 148 hourly workers an annual salary of over $50,000 was in danger of shutting down.

Clark, Troy Mine manager, led a tour through the mine last week and though no sunlight touched the network of nearly 100 miles of underground tunnels, the mine didn’t seem nearly as dark as it has at times over its past 30 years.

If the mine hadn’t found new investors this year or restructured its debt, or if workers hadn’t labored as hard as they had to up production despite pay cuts, the mine may have closed for good, said John Shanahan, chief executive officer of Revett Minerals, Troy Mine’s parent company.

“It’s been a hard year,” Shanahan said. “If we had closed it down, she wasn’t coming back.”

As Troy Mine quietly celebrates its 30th birthday this month, Revett’s stock is at 25 cents per share, increased four-fold from the dreary month of January.

Ten months after copper plunged to a market low of $1.25 per pound, it is now up to $3 – the same price as its prior three-year average. Silver prices, which dipped below $9 per ounce in mid-November, are now at about $17.50, over $4 more than the market’s prior three-year average.

Though the company is still reeling from the losses, it’s no longer in survival mode. It returned a portion of workers’ cut wages last July and is now able to look toward the future.

“It has a six-year mine life,” Clark said, tracing a map of the mine with his finger, “but typically every year of exploration adds another year or so.”

Asarco began developing the mine in October 1979 just months before the company hired Clark.

“Back then it was just a hole in the ground,” Clark recalled, “and a couple trailers to shower in and some areas for parts, and that was it.”

The company began extracting copper and silver ore in 1981, processing it on site using standard flotation technology invented a century ago. From there it was shipped to distant smelters that would remove the metals from their ore.

Back then, about 320 employees drilled, blasted and loaded underground, operated the mill, repaired machinery and staffed the offices. After 12 years, however, production came to a screeching halt. Metal prices fell and Asarco stopped production. 

While many families moved, transferring to places like Arizona, Tennessee and Missouri, others drew unemployment, hoping that the clouds would clear, prices would improve and Asarco would begin hiring again.

Clark and a handful of others stayed to maintain infrastructure and equipment. They removed snow in the winter, de-watered the mine and repaired the equipment.

It took 11 years for Troy Mine to open up again for production – a day that Clark never saw coming.

“After a couple years I just wrote it off that we’d be here until they closed the doors,” Clark said.

Revett purchased the mine in 1999, invested in upgrades and began producing again December 2004.

It takes a new miner about two weeks to learn to navigate underground. Day or night, winter or summer, there are always about 25 hardhats shining in the darkness and temperatures stay between 48 and 52 degrees.

Clark recalls a time when Arizona and Nevada mines tempted miners with higher-paying jobs. He said these days turnover is low, and there’s a surplus of miners.

“Everyday I come to work I count myself fortunate,” he said.

When the truck exits the mine and enters daylight, the occupants briefly squint. Though it’s a foggy day, it’s brighter than it was earlier on.

The same could be said for the mine’s future.