Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

The commodity cycle speeds up Add to ...

Nothing remains of the peak of Copper Mountain in southern British Columbia, destroyed by decades of mining that have left behind three gaping pits about 1,000 metres above sea level.



But it's been quiet up here since the mid-1990s, when the last operation was shuttered because of low commodity prices.



That's about to change, thanks to a roaring comeback in the price of the main metal produced here. Copper , used in everything from construction and cars to telecommunications and power, is on a record run.



Amid blustery wind and a fresh blanket of snow, the trucks and shovels are rumbling again at this site, home to the Copper Mountain project, located 270 kilometres east of the Port Metro Vancouver, where copper concentrate will be shipped to Japan for smelting.



Sparks from welders' torches crackle and fly inside the massive hangar-like processing mill that stands 10 storeys tall. Outside, several 240-tonne, seven-metre-tall trucks - price tag $3.5-million each - bump along at 15 kilometres an hour, hauling away waste rock from the once-prolific pit 3, to once again get after the suddenly valuable copper-speckled ore.



"The best copper is the copper that has already been found," says Bill Dodds, the mine general manager. "And it's where you probably find more of it."



The Copper Mountain mine is one of a growing number of old, shuttered mines around the world that are being revisited, refurbished and reopened by companies hoping to cash in on the current surge in prices for copper, gold, nickel and a host of other metals.



The revival of old mines is part of the industry's push to meet soaring demand from China and other fast-growing nations that use the various metals in their surging industrial exports and to build out their own infrastructure.



Mining companies are spending billions to boost production on such projects. But it's a race: They must get the old mines operating as quickly as possible before the next downturn hits the notoriously cyclical industry. Some of the mines come with high costs that would quickly make them money-losers if metal prices were to slide.



Today, with copper trading comfortably above $4 (U.S.) a pound, it appears that the comeback of the Copper Mountain mine couldn't have been better timed.



"We are extremely excited to be starting production this year," says Copper Mountain Mining Corp. chief executive officer Jim O'Rourke, who was also head of the former company that made the decision to shut the mine in the mid-1990s.



Copper Mountain has a rocky history. Ore was discovered by a father-and-son prospecting team in the 1880s. The first claim staked at Copper Mountain was by a fur buyer, R.A. Brown, in 1895, but it wasn't until 1920 that the first ore was shipped out from a mine. Low copper prices forced the nascent operation to shut down just two months later - the first of four times in the next eight decades that whipsaw commodity prices closed the doors.



When the mine officially reopens this summer, after some $438-million of reconstruction spending, it will be the first commercial production to come out of the site in 15 years. When the mine last closed in 1996, copper was struggling to stay above $1 (U.S.) a pound, making it difficult to not only turn a profit but replace the 20-year-old trucks and aging infrastructure.



Around the world, old mines like Copper Mountain are new again. Mine reopenings are running at a brisk clip - an average of about two per month over the past 21 months worldwide, according to Halifax-based Metals Economics Group. That includes four reopenings in March last year and three in each July and April.

Single page

Follow us on Twitter: @BrendaBouw, @davidebner

 
Security Price Change
HG-FT Copper 3.231 0.0005
0.015 %
Add to watchlist
Live Discussion of HG on StockTwits
More Discussion on HG-FT

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories