Working at Midas Gold Corp.s Golden Meadows project in the Idaho backcountry means being away from family for weeks at a time, but it also represents a steady paycheck. Thats scarce in Valley County, where the unemployment rate was recently 14.6 percent.
The Vancouver, B.C.-based mining company is drilling thousands of feet of core samples to determine whether it will mine for gold in the historic Stibnite Mining District near Yellow Pine.
Midas is still years away from excavating what company officials are estimating are seven million ounces of gold below the ground at Stibnite. But it is already the largest private employer in Valley County, and it is having a large effect on the local economy.
Drills have been running night and day in 2011 and 2012 in what the company collectively calls the Golden Meadows Project.
Midas succeeded in consolidating properties in the historical mining district along the Salmon River under one company. The Payette National Forest approved its work in a series of one-year special permits.
EMPLOYMENT COULD HIT 425
A preliminary economic assessment report done by CRK Consulting estimates direct employment could hit 400 in a three-year construction phase and 425 during the subsequent 14-year operating phase. Midas Gold-related jobs now employ 146 people, including employees and contractors. Half are from Valley and Adams counties. Adams Countys jobless rate, 17.6 percent, is even higher than Valleys.
The report says salaries would be more than double the average amounts reported in the 2010 census for Idaho.
The Golden Meadows Project represents a tremendous opportunity to create significant long-term, well-paid employment in an economically depressed part of Idaho, President Stephen Quin says.
But the work comes as the price of gold is falling. Last Sept. 1, gold sold for about $1,880 an ounce. Lately it has been about $200 less. The latest assessment contemplates a price of $1,400 per ounce.
What weve got to do is refine what we do control, which is how much gold is there in the ground, what does it take to get it out of the ground (and) the cost to build the mine, Quin says.
This spring, estimates were Golden Meadows might yield 5 million ounces of gold. But with drilling through the summer, those expectations now are higher. A rule of thumb is, generally, a world-class deposit is over 5 million ounces, Quin says. It was a significant deposit even without the drilling in 2012.
There are three deposits to concentrate on right now: Hangar Flats, West End and Yellow Pine. There are other possibilities as the drillers step out to evaluate ore outside those zones.
100 WORKERS ON SITE
About 100 Midas Gold employees, drilling contractors, fisheries and archaeological experts, and support staff were working on-site in Yellow Pine and Stibnite on a recent Monday.
My opinion is its great. Obviously, Donnelly and the McCall area are slow right now, says Levi Anderson of the Donnelly area.
His company, Anderson Outdoor LLC, replants areas where drilling rigs have been operating on the slopes. The company is also growing grass and thousands of lodgepole pines in areas that were little more than granite.
Were all excited to be up here, Anderson says. We all need to work.
DORMS IN THE WOODS
Midas supplies more than 100 beds in a trailer camp, rentals and cabins in Yellow Pine, as well as the Stibnite camp.
More dorm units are being built at Stibnite. Many of the rooms hold two beds one for a day employee and one for the night worker, such as drillers laboring under the moonlight.
When youre working, hes sleeping, and when hes sleeping, youre working, says Jane Suggs, Midas Gold community relations manager. Generally, everybody works all the time. Because thats really what you do here.
There are a variety of schedules, such as 20 days on, 10 days off. The drillers and other labor are 14 days on and seven days off, says Dave Williams, assistant site health and safety officer.
The camps are largely areas to sleep, eat and rest. But there are diversions for time off. The camps have satellite television, movie nights, gaming consoles, exercise machines and ping-pong tables. There is Internet and telephone coverage to civilization. But booze is off limits: Midas prohibits alcohol or drugs on company property.
The employees also have been helping the fish girls biologists counting the numbers of bull trout and salmon, using diving masks and snorkels.
It took one team only about five minutes to spot all the necessary indicator species of fish, showing the improved aquatic condition after years of rehabilitation at Stibnite and its old Glory Hole of mining waste, Suggs says.
Perhaps the biggest danger at Stibnite is the approach road, so drivers use radios to announce their positions at each milepost.
WOMEN FEEL WELCOME
The prospect of approaching winter is taken in stride.
We stayed busy all last winter, says Loren Schuman of Cascade, who assembles the wooden platforms for the drills. It was a pretty light snow year. ... The conditions dont matter. Its the people you work with.
Theyve done a good job of hiring people who are hardy, who dont mind it, Schuman says. If someone shows up, you can tell in a couple days if theyre going to pan out. Its good to be part of this.
There are a dozen women on the project, and they face the same weird schedules and elements as the men, but they feel supported, says geologist Daniela Anguita of Garden Valley.
Its great being a woman up here, because everybody is willing to help us, Anguita says. Its like having 100 older brothers.
Other women work as camp support, heavy equipment operators, van drivers and manning the traffic shack, monitoring vehicles on the road to Stibnite.
Living away from family for weeks at a time is a difficult prospect, but Midas provides the comforts. It also helps feed those families back home.
Weve had guys who quit because their wives couldnt take it, Anderson says. You do what you can to work. Its great knowing a paycheck is there regularly.