“You probably think you’re going to see one little dark tunnel down there.”
That’s what Nigel Bain, General Manager of Barrick’s Turquoise Ridge mine, said jokingly to me shortly before my tour of the Nevada-based underground operation.
I chuckled politely at Bain’s comment, but he wasn’t too far off. I more or less expected to be lowered via hand lift into a dark, cramped tunnel and be met by a couple of grizzled old miners holding kerosene lamps in a pump trolley.
But this is 2012, not 1912.
Turquoise Ridge is a modern underground mine with more than 70,000 feet of tunnels. It has Internet connectivity and mobile phone service in some areas, an 18,000 square-foot autoshop, and a ventilation system that makes many areas of the mine feel downright balmy.
As for the miners that I met, grizzled and old are not the first adjectives that come to mind. Indeed, standing beside Jon Laird, Blake Davis, Ray Broadway and John Heathman, all of whom accompanied me underground, didn’t exactly do wonders for the ego. All are burly, strapping lads who could easily tap me out in the first few seconds of a mixed-martial arts match, were I foolish enough to step into the cage with them. I am no fool.
Turquoise Ridge is jointly owned by Barrick and Newmont Mining, with Barrick holding a 75 percent interest. In 1934, mine developer Noble Getchell purchased claims on the property and built a large operation that produced copper, silver, arsenic, tungsten and gold. Placer Dome took over the property in 1999 when it acquired Getchell Gold and Barrick inherited control in 2006 when it purchased Placer Dome.
Bain, who became general manager of Turquoise Ridge in August 2011, has lofty goals for the operation, referring to it as a future key mine for Barrick. A pre-feasibility expansion study is underway at the operation, including the possible addition of an open pit mine.
Before my descent undergound, I needed to gear up. Randy Miles, who manages the operation’s equipment storehouse, met me and my colleague, Leslie Maple, who joined me on the tour. He quickly found us coveralls, safety glasses and a hard hat with a cap lamp. Then he helped us strap on our self-rescue breathing kits, and gave a short orientation on how to use them. All miners carry self-rescuers in case of emergency. “Don’t worry, you won’t need them,” Miles said.
Davis, a five-year veteran of Turquoise Ridge, took us to sign in and obtain our brass tags. Every miner has two brass tags with their name and employee number on them. When they go underground, they hang one tag on a bulletin board and keep the other one with them. In this way, the mine can easily identify who is underground at any given moment.
“Everyone who works here is focused on safety at all times,” Bain said, noting that Turquoise Ridge won the Nevada Safety Award for underground mines in 2011.
After obtaining our tags, we entered a huge elevator that can carry up to 80 people and hoist 10 tons of ore. It took about 100 seconds to descend 1,750 feet into the mine. On the way down, we put on our cap lamps, without which it would have been pitch black. Then I entered a subterranean world few ever see.
The first thing I noticed was the size of the tunnels. Seventeen feet high by 16 feet wide, they can easily accommodate a 30-ton truck. The tunnels are reinforced with steel rockbolts and a cement-like substance known as shotcrete.
Every 100 feet or so there were turnout bays that stored ore, equipment and vehicles. Turquoise Ridge has an underground fleet of about 100 vehicles, including loaders, drillers and personnel transports. Despite the substantial size of the tunnels, there is only room for one-way traffic so drivers use their cap lamps to determine right of way. One flash of the light, for instance, means go and two means stop.
The vehicles are serviced regularly at the site’s auto shop, which has six service bays. The shop is large enough to contain overhead cranes, has Internet access and has thousands of spare parts in stock.
Turquoise Ridge operates seven days a week, 24 hours a day. On any given day, there are about 100 workers on shift. All told, the mine has about 350 direct employees, and another 200 contractors work regularly on site. The mine produced about 182,000 ounces of gold in 2011, or about 500 ounces per day. Ore excavated at the site is processed at Newmont Mining’s nearby Twin Creeks operation.
Fresh air is funneled into the mine via ventilation shafts and circulated by a series of fans spread throughout the mine. As we traveled deeper into the mine, we passed several large, noisy fans at regular intervals.
Towards the end of the tour we met a surveyor mapping out an area that will soon be mined. It happened to be an area that was not well ventilated and the humidity was stifling. A 135-pound jackleg rested on a tunnel wall nearby and the strength and skill needed to operate the device was obvious even to a novice like me.
Several miners who were in the area stopped for a chat. As the heat weighed down and I took in the catacomb-like darkness and sea of rock, I realized that working underground was not for everyone. Then, for whatever reason, I felt compelled to share this observation with the group. “No offense,” I blurted out, “I’m not sure I could work down here.”
Thankfully, no one did take offense. Instead, they just smiled, and one miner leaned in beside me and told me he couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.