Buckhorn Mountain lies serene and undisturbed, dotted by snow-covered slopes that are a skier’s dream.
But underneath the mountain's placid exterior and photogenic face, Kinross Gold Corporation operates an elaborate and sophisticated mining operation to excavate and extract precious gold ore.
A muddy dirt road and a few buildings dotting the side of the mountain are the only telltale and discernible signs of the mine's location.
The gold under Buckhorn Mountain has attracted miners for about 100 years, according to workers at the site. A dilapidated log cabin, attesting to the presence of miners from long ago, still stands at the location of the mine. But mining science has improved appreciably since the time of the log cabin's owners.
Kinross Gold Corporation, a global mining business, recognized the possibilities that lay under Buckhorn Mountain. They bought Crown Resources Corporation and the Buckhorn Mountain Project (now home to the Buckhorn mine) in 2006. In 2003, Kinross had purchased the Kettle River Operations, the mill where the gold ore is processed. Together, these assets formed Kettle River—Buckhorn Mining. In 2008, Kinross began full mining operations. Since that time, the Buckhorn mine has produced around 1.5 million tons of ore containing 720,000 ounces of gold.
Retrieving gold from the mountain
“Gold is a commodity,” explained Mark Kiessling, Mine Manager at Kettle River-Buckhorn. “It [gold] goes to computers (almost all electronics have gold in it), jewelry, but the majority of gold goes for the backing of currency.”
Gold may be a high-demand commodity, but the process of excavating that gold is far from easy. Because the gold at Buckhorn cannot be seen by the naked eye, retrieving it involves a complex, sophisticated process.
“You start with a drill,” Kiessling said. “We drill out a 15-by-15 foot face in the rock. “[We drill] 10 to 12-feet deep, and [drill] about 50 holes. We load these holes with a blasting agent, and then we blast that [rock] face.”
After the face of the rock is blasted, a loader or a 'mucker' (in miner's lingo) will be loaded with gold ore. The operator of the 'mucker' will drive the ore out of the mine and deposit it in a designated location.
After the gold ore is removed, the miners place a series of supports in the area. First, they attach a wire mesh to the ceiling to hold any loose rock debris to the ceiling of the mine. The wire mesh is held in place by a split-set bolt. For added support, a ten-foot resin bolt is placed in addition to the split-set bolts.
Kiessling said that some mines use the split-set bolts alone, but Buckhorn uses the resin bolts to ensure their miners’ safety. The safety precautions must be effective since Buckhorn employees have not suffered a job-related injury in over seven years.
The ore is trucked by contractors to the Kettle River mill, also owned by Kinross. There, it is processed. The finished product produces a gold bar that is roughly 80 ounces of gold; it is similar to the size of a brick, but much heavier. Worth? About $1.4 million.
“We produce two to four bars a week,” stated Deana Zakar, Community and Government Relations director at Kinross.
‘Our culture is caring’
The whole process of extracting gold takes 230 workers (Kinross hired a total of 230 in 2011). There are 140 employees at the mine site and 90 employees at the mill. All employees live in Washington state, with 70 percent residing in Ferry County, 25 percent in Okanogan County, and five percent living in other counties.
Kinross Gold Corporation does not hesitate to invest in their employees.
“We are trying to make sure that we are helping people along to go to the areas they want to go to,” explained Kiessling.
In 2011, Kettle River-Buckhorn spent $500,000 on more than 8,200 hours of employee training programs and another $360,000 on internship and apprenticeship programs.
Kiessling related a story about an employee who worked as a janitor at the mill, but had a desire to be a miner. The company was willing to teach her how to operate the heavy equipment necessary in mining.
“We took somebody from a custodial position and put her into a mining position,” he said. “Mining is technical…it's not a simple position. So, I think that was a big success for everybody concerned. And she is doing well.”
Even though Kinross looks at a prospective employee's particular skill level, they also look at how an employee will “fit into the culture” at the mine.
“I would choose somebody with less experience if they were a better cultural fit,” stated Kiessling. “Our culture is caring [and there is] good camaraderie. [We want] people who are serious about safety, and have a lot of common sense. There is no room for error in an underground mine. [We want] people who are exacting and safety focused.”
Each employee at the mine typically works a twelve-hour shift, four days a week, according to Kiessling.
In 2011, the payroll at Kettle River totaled $19 million, or $82,559 per employee. A Buckhorn employee makes approximately 2.5 times higher than the average wages of a private sector employee in Ferry or Okanogan Counties.
Not only does Kinross invest in its employees, it invests in the local businesses around it. In 2011, the Kinross Gold Corporation spent $23 million on 354 vendors and contractors based in Washington. And it also spent about 36 percent of its total spending on goods and services. Of the $23 million spent on Washington businesses, $9 million was spent with local businesses in Ferry and Okanogan counties.
“We do as much as we can through local vendors,” Kiessling said. “We try to purchase equipment through local salespeople. It is not always cheaper, but we try to keep it local to make sure that we are supporting the community.”
Positive affects of the Kinross operation stretches far beyond the company’s own employees, contractors, and purchases. Indirect and induced impacts of the Buckhorn mine services resulted in an additional 380 jobs in Ferry and Okanogan counties, and another $8 million in indirect and induced payroll in the local area, according to a 2011 economic survey.
“If we were gone tomorrow, then 380 other jobs [would] be affected in addition to ours,” stated Zakar.
But the mine on Buckhorn Mountain is not destined to last forever. The mine's days area numbered.
By 2015, the gold ore will be completely extracted from the Buckhorn mine. However, company officials are pursuing excavating approvals with the United States Forest Service, Federal Bureau of Land Management, and the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. If the exploration project produces results, then Kinross will be able to continue to positively contribute to the economies of Ferry and Okanogan counties.