Friday, 19 August 2016

Much scepticism about the Cornish tin revival

Despite last evening being warm and dry, there was an unusually low turn-out for the monthly Cornish Mining Sundowner, at Falmouth's Chain Locker pub.


The Sundowner is always a good place to hear common sense opinions of what is happening in the mining industry, and also what is not happening, or likely to happen.
There has been much chatter lately on social media, and also in the local and national press, of a resurgence in Cornish tin mining. South Crofty in Camborne has been shut for almost two decades and most of its workings are flooded. But Strongbow Exploration, a Canadian company that bought it out of administration this year, is confident that industry economics support a restart.
Last year Australian company Wolf Minerals commenced operations at the Drakelands tungsten-tin mine in Devon, the first new metal mine in the UK in over 40 years (posting of 17 September 2015), and although rumour has it that Drakelands is struggling due to refractory ore problems and low metal prices, Strongbow believes that Cornwall is an obvious place to share the revival, as the county once dominated global supplies of copper, and later tin, before the global tin price crash of the 1980s brought a halt to operations.
While the local economy has shifted to tourism, Cornwall is still very much mining friendly. This summer 130,000 people saw the “Man Engine”, a 10m-high mechanical puppet, marched across the county to celebrate the decade since mining sites were given Unesco “world heritage” status (posting of 7 August 2016).
However, talking to a few of the "old-timers" last night, who, like me have witnessed the fluctuating fortunes of the Cornish industry over the past half century, it is evident that there is a great deal of scepticism around the claims, and a feeling that we have heard it all before, South Crofty being known in some circles as "Wheal Two-Years"!
Nearly seven years ago (posting of 14 December 2009) I reported that the then new owners of South Crofty, Western Union Mines, had recruited ex-CSM student John Webster to bring the mine back into operation within two years, developing the other ore-types that had been discovered, containing copper, zinc, silver, lithium and indium, which could make South Crofty a true polymetallic mine, that could take advantage of fluctuations in metal prices, rather than be at the mercy of tin prices. Five months later (posting of 10 May 2010) Western Union Mines raised hopes higher by announcing a potentially lucrative new source of income- gold, assaying about 1.6g per tonne.
However, almost a year later (posting of 11 February 2011) problems led to the lay-off of 16 of its 60 workers, but the company reported that it hoped to employ up to 400 staff within two years, and that indium could be the saviour of the mine, as up to 1000g per tonne had been found in some assays, leading the local member of Parliament to say “This is an exciting time. It may be too early to call it a modern-day gold rush, but let’s hope it’s an indium rush. Demand for this element keeps growing. This would be a state of the art facility and help resurrect mining in Cornwall.”
All this optimism came to an end in June 2013 when the mine went into administration, and now three years later we are promised once more that the mine will commence operations in 2 years time.
The fact that it operated until 1998 gives South Crofty advantages, including mineral rights and a mining licence that lasts for decades. “If it were not for having the mining permit in place we would not be here today,” Richard Williams, Strongbow’s Wales-born chief executive is reported to have said. He says that South Crofty, where 400,000 tonnes of tin is estimated to have been mined over the centuries, is still a “world-class deposit”, with 2.5m tonnes of ore containing an estimated 44,000 tonnes of tin, and potential for more.
But the problems of re-starting a deep mine such as South Crofty are immense and the investment required would be huge. In order to pump the flooded workings dry within a viable period the company needs permission to more than double the permitted level of discharges. And presumably the water would be discharged, via the old adits, into the nearby Red River, which discharges into the area around Godrevy on the north Cornwall coast (posting of 16 October 2015), as would the tailings from the processing plant? And what of the processing plant? - the old comminution, DMS and gravity concentrator has been left to rot since the mine closure nearly 20 years ago, such that a completely new plant would need to be designed and built.
So although I would love to report, in two years time, of the start-up of a new operation in the Camborne-Redruth area, I think the opinion last night was 'don't hold your breath'.
Twitter @barrywills

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