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A Silver (Fox) Lining

Nov 18, 2019Education, Magazine, Mining

Formerly defunct mine now enriches UAF mining curriculum

(From left to right) Hunter Daniel, Isela Amezquita, Victoria Nelson, Peyton Presler, and Bayasgalan Enkhbayar survey the Silver Fox Mine as part of their mine surveying class.

UAF Department of Mining and Geological Engineering

Five years ago, students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) College of Engineering and Mines performed a controlled blast at the University-owned Silver Fox Mine. It was the first blast conducted in more than twenty years, and the first since completion of a four-year, student-led rehabilitation project on a 300-foot portion of the mine.

“It was the first time the blasting was supposed to happen after the rehabilitation had taken place, and there was lots of anxiety about how the mine would react,” says Dr. Tathagata Ghosh, chair of the Department of Mining and Geological Engineering.

That worry proved to be misplaced. Orica Mining Services worked closely with UAF students to ensure adherence to industry standards for industrial blasts throughout the entire process, and engineers from nearby Pogo Mine offered additional support, Ghosh says. Students prepared risk assessments and safety plans, prepped the site, and filled the mine with explosives. Local news outlets, community members, industry supporters, and even local elementary students came out to watch the detonation.

“The blast went off with no untoward incident or anything, so we were really thankful,” Ghosh says. “It was a good experience for everybody.”

It also epitomized the type of real-world, hands-on learning experience that Silver Fox offers students.

UAF students take Dr. Jurgen Brune from the Colorado School of Mines to tour the Silver Fox Mine during a 2017 visit.

UAF Department of Mining and Geological Engineering

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Silver Fox Acquisition

Silver Fox sits off the Elliott Highway in Fox, 20 miles north of UAF. Comprised of seventeen mining claims and filled with pockets of high-grade silver ore, Turry Anderson staked his claims on the mine after World War II, according to Rock Poker to Pay Dirt: The History of Alaska’s School of Mines and Its Successors by Leslie Noyes, Ernest N. Wolff, and Earl Hoover Beistline, published by the University of Alaska Foundation in 2002. Anderson used the mine as a supplemental source of income of sorts, extracting and selling silver when he needed extra cash. He worked closely with the university during that period—he taught a practical mining course at Silver Fox and let students practice drilling and blasting. In the 1970s Anderson donated the claims to UAF.

The acquisition filled a void created in the ‘50s when UAF shut down its adit after several groups of students conducted improper, non-sanctioned blasts in various portions of the 5-foot, square tunnel that runs hundreds of feet under the UAF campus. Until the adit’s closure, the school used it to provide practical training to mining students.

The usable portion of Silver Fox is small; Dr. Gang Chen, professor and former department chair, estimates it’s no longer than 300 yards measured from the mine’s entrance. The mine contains mostly silver, but the vein itself is “very, very tiny, so economically it was not worthwhile [for Anderson] to mine it,” he says.

Silver Fox receives minimal financial support from UAF; instead, it operates on a mix of lab fees, student-led fundraising, private donors, and donations of time and equipment from the mining industry, alumni, and the larger Fairbanks and Delta Junction communities.

“We have routinely received donated equipment from a lot of well-wishers around the state,” Ghosh says. “There are three big mines [Pogo, Fort Knox, and Usibelli] close to Fairbanks that regularly donate equipment.” Construction Machinery Industrial, Mining and Petroleum Training Services (MAPTS), and the Alaska Miners Association have all also regularly donated equipment, and Orica and other industry partners provide strict oversight on all student-run blasts, including the most recent in 2017 and a third planned for this fall.

Real-world Experience

Silver Fox allows students to apply classroom lessons to the real-world, in real-time. Labs are conducted in the mine every fall and spring, and it serves as the setting for courses in mine safety, mine surveying, and geophysics, Ghosh says. The practical application helps reinforce the lessons.

“I gained my first hands-on experience with surveying at Silver Fox,” says Mikahla deVries-Paris, a second-year mining engineering student. “This was a fun and interactive way to learn instead of sitting in a classroom only learning the conceptual surveying ideals.”

Beyond the course work, students learn what it takes to operate and manage an actual mine by stepping in and running it, which includes handling the mine’s small budget. Faculty provides oversight, but “we don’t really interfere with the day to day workings. It is entirely student-run,” Ghosh says. Although Silver Fox doesn’t operate 24/7 and shuts down for the winter, it still requires a good deal of maintenance, all of which falls to the students.

“Above ground there’s cutting the brush down, making sure trees are not on the mine trail, cleaning up the shop, maintaining our Bobcat, air compressor, and generator,” says senior mining engineering student and current mine manager Matteo Anselmi. “Underground it’s making sure that all the tunnels are safe, so if there are any rock falls, we need to address that. There’s a lot of scaling, which is knocking down rocks from the roof and walls. During the winter we get water inside that freezes over, and during the spring water accumulates in certain parts of the mine, so we have to do a lot of dewatering. There’s just a huge amount of activities that can be done.”

For many students, working in Silver Fox is their first exposure to everything related to mining.

“I had no understanding of what a mine looked like, the equipment used, or the PPE [personal protection equipment] required,” explains Isela Amezquita, a mining engineering student and current president of the UAF chapter of The Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration. “I learned how to operate a Bobcat and a jackleg, the importance of regulation, how to critically think when designing a blast pattern, and the importance of surveying. This year I have already seen the importance of understanding basic mine concepts as I enter core classes.”

Lessons learned from working in the mine have a broader application as well, Anselmi says.

“It has a lot of benefits related to the work environment,” he explains. “It helps with problem solving and multi-tasking, learning to run a small crew of people, and organizing the work. You learn something new every day because every day there’s a new challenge, and you have to overcome that challenge.”

Mine Collapse and Rehabilitation

The hands-on learning experience came to a halt in the early 2000s, however, when a portion of Silver Fox unexpectedly collapsed.

“The mine portal collapsed around 2003 or 2004 after a heavy rainfall,” says Chen. “There was nobody there; we only found out when we went for mine safety lab class.”

Without access to the mine, the department used the University’s MAPTS facility in Delta Junction. The facility technically met the school’s needs, Ghosh says, but students didn’t get the same management and leadership experience that came with running Silver Fox on their own. And using the MAPTS facility was something of a “logistical nightmare.”

“We had some issues going to Delta Junction and using their facility every year,” Ghosh explains. “Here we have the mine in Fox, just a twenty-minute drive from the University. But if you have something in Delta, one mine lab which is supposed to be done in a couple of hours will take [students] a day because they have to drive there and back.”

The student body’s demographics added another unique complication.

“We have a lot of international graduate and undergraduate students here on student visas,” Ghosh explains. “They have to have permission from the State Department to work outside of the University.” Permission was almost always granted, but the paperwork and wait time involved in getting that permission was a hassle.

In 2007 students and faculty, together with MAPTS and industry partners, began work to rehabilitate the mine so it could reopen as a teaching facility, a process Chen says took close to four years to complete.

Under the supervision of MAPTS instructors, students cleared out debris, reworked the shop area, and dug out, regraded, and stabilized the mine portal. The work was all volunteered and done outside of class time, with students devoting their weekends to the project, Chen says. Construction Machinery Industrial, Denali Fenceworks, and NC Machinery in Fairbanks donated equipment, tools, and supplies, and faculty, led by then-department chair Chen, worked to secure funding from industry partners, Ghosh says. A full rehabilitation, however, will take years.

“Rehabilitation of Silver Fox is a continuous and slow process since we don’t have a huge pot of money available,” he explains. “We have to rely on benevolence, charity, donations, and the help of our well-wishers and industry partners to incrementally open up other sections. It will be several years before any significant change is seen.”

Mining Engineering alumni Mickey Wilson and Terry Taylor check the air-compressor tank inside the mine.

UAF Department of Mining and Geological Engineering

Silver Fox’s Future

It’s unlikely that Silver Fox will ever operate as anything other than a teaching facility. Although Chen says the department believes that a small vein still visible in the mine is “pretty rich,” it doesn’t make financial sense to invest in extraction.

“I believe [the vein] may have gold, and I’m not sure how many ounces of silver, probably worth a couple of thousand dollars,” Chen says. “But the vein is less than one inch thick. It’s not worthwhile, all the effort put in to that; the cost will be overrun.”

UAF’s nonprofit status also makes it difficult to reap any financial benefit from the mine or turn it into a commercial venture.

“As long as it’s on University property—because we’re a nonprofit—you can’t do financial work,” Ghosh explains. “If we can find a richer vein that would make it worthwhile, that’s something the University would have to decide. But right now, there are no plans of going commercial with it.”

Instead, the goal is to continue to use the mine as an operational field laboratory for coursework. The school’s geological engineering program uses the mine for part of its labs, and Anselmi says they’re working to get students from related majors more involved in the mine’s operation.

And really, Ghosh says, that’s putting the mine to its best use.

“The best thing about the Silver Fox Mine is it teaches faculty and students to be entrepreneurs, and it teaches the students how to manage without having anybody else’s authority,” Ghosh says. “They have to learn at some point not to be cowboys. Those learning outcomes cannot be achieved without the Silver Fox.”

Anselmi agrees.

“Being in charge of basically the whole operation, being in charge of the people working and ensuring their safety, the scheduling required, being on time for projects—it’s a good way to learn all of this before going into the real mining world.”

Benjamin and Aaron Rouse consult the digital check-in/check-out system they developed to keep track of visitors to the mine.

UAF Department of Mining and Geological Engineering

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