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Greens Creek’s Green Legacy

by Apr 13, 2020Magazine, Mining

Hecla focuses on employees, safety, and environmental stewardship

Greens Creek | Hecla

Hecla’s Greens Creek Mine, located on Admiralty Island eighteen miles southwest of Juneau, is one of the largest silver mines in the world and the largest in the United States. In 2019 the underground mine processed 846,076 tons of ore to produce 9.9 million ounces of silver and more than 56,000 ounces of gold, 20,000 tons of lead, and 56,000 tons of zinc. According to the company, Greens Creek is a very low-cost silver mine and is the cash-generating engine for Hecla, which also has operating mines in Idaho; Nevada; Quebec, Canada; and Durango, Mexico.

According to Greens Creek’s General Manager and Hecla VP Brian Erickson, Greens Creek is also unique as it’s located within the Admiralty Island National Monument, the only US mine permitted to operate within a national monument. “That means our safety and environmental record must be among the best in the world right now,” Erickson says. “That’s a responsibility that we talk about every day, and we take it very seriously.”

Erickson says safety is a core value for Hecla; in 2012 Hecla joined the National Mining Association and was an early adopter of that organization’s CORESafety program, which has the goal to eliminate fatalities and reduce injury rates by 50 percent over the next five years.

“We were one of the first hard rock mining companies to be certified in that program in 2017,” Erickson reports. “It certainly paid off for Greens Creek and for Hecla.” He explains that in 2019 the national average underground all incident frequency rate was 2.4 according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration; company-wide, Hecla rated approximately 1.6 and Greens Creek came in at 1.2. “We’ve seen a steady decline in our frequency rate across the company… we focus on safety every day,” Erickson says.

Safety starts with employees, and Erickson says the employees at Greens Creek are empowered to take ownership of safe operations. “We push our people to utilize the Take Five program, a risk assessment program,” he says. “Every time they take on a new task, they think through it and try to understand the risks and then do something to mitigate those risks before they start the work.”

Local Investment

When Greens Creek began operations in 1989, Hecla owned almost 30 percent interest in the project. In 2008, Hecla acquired the Rio Tinto subsidiaries that held the remaining interest in Greens Creek, becoming the 100 percent owner and operator. “When they had an opportunity to purchase the remaining percentage of the operation and they did so, I kind of got bought out,” Erickson jokes about how he joined Hecla.

Erickson started at Greens Creek in 1996 as a production geologist; looking back, he views the change in ownership as positive for the mine. “When I started here, Rio Tinto was the operating partner, and they were a very progressive and very large company. Quite frankly, [Greens Creek was] a small fish for those guys… For Hecla, we were kind of a game changer for them, a larger production profile and quite a lot more cash flow. It was interesting going from a large company with lots of bureaucracy to a small, more family-oriented type company. In my mind it was a positive thing for Greens Creek: Hecla understood the value they could gain here and invested heavily in the operation.”

That investment in the mine continues today. Hecla is planning to expand the Greens Creek tailings disposal facility, and Erickson reports the company is gearing up to start the National Environmental Policy Act process for that expansion, which will add a decade of life to the mine’s operations.

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The proposed expansion is a small buildout of the mine’s current tailings facility and will be contained within the company’s existing lease area. Greens Creek is making “every effort” to avoid any work close to nearby fish-bearing creeks and to use existing support structures to minimize the facility’s footprint and impact.

“We’re proud of the plan… it’s a responsible plan and reflects our core values for protection of the environment,” Erickson says. Hecla anticipates filing a Notice of Intent in the second quarter of 2021 for the expansion, which start to finish is roughly estimated to take ten years. Erickson says an early cost estimate for the expansion is in the tens of millions of dollars, although it’s relatively small. “It’s about the size of the Costco parking lot in Juneau… [but] you’d be shocked on the cost per square foot.”

Far into the future, the company anticipates a stage two that would add on to the tailings facility to extend the life of the mine even further. “We want to do it in stages to minimize our impact,” Erickson says.

Aerial view of Greens Creek mine infrastructure in Southeast.

Greens Creek | Hecla

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In the Community

While the company is minimizing its environmental impact, Hecla is simultaneously trying to maximize its community involvement. Through Greens Creek, Hecla is the largest private-sector employer in Juneau and is Juneau’s largest taxpayer. “We buy local to the tune of about $58 million a year,” Erickson says.

Greens Creek has also formed a mutually beneficial partnership with AEL&P, Juneau’s electric utility. “In 2005 the local utility was looking for opportunities to improve the amount of hydropower available to Juneau,” Erickson explains. “We purchased infrastructure and signed on as an ‘interruptible customer.’ That means if they don’t have the ability to provide more [electricity] than what the local base requires, we get cut off, and we start our generators.” He says over the years it’s gone well, though recently there were drought conditions in Southeast and Hecla needed to run its own power-generating facilities for about a year. “We very much like the agreement we have with AEL&P… It’s a win-win for everybody: the ratepayers get a break on their bills, we get clean energy that is cheaper than what we would generate, and we don’t have the environmental impact of burning diesel fuel.”

Hecla has also invested significantly in local education and training programs to allow for local hire “to the maximum extent that we can,” Erickson says. The company works with the Mining and Petroleum Training Service, MAPTS, to offer training at the Delta Mine Training Center, which exposes locals to mining in a controlled environment. Greens Creek has invested about $1 million to partner with UAS to develop a mining career development program, which has a mine diesel mechanic emphasis, to encourage high school students to consider a career in the mining industry. The company also has an internal mine training program that allows new workers to learn equipment and better understand the mining cycle in a safe and easy environment.

Erickson says the mine has seen positive results from all these programs; for example, approximately 10 percent of the mine’s underground maintenance workforce has come through the UAS diesel mechanic program.

A Greens Creek employee labels a sample for testing.

Greens Creek | Hecla

Good Culture, Good Employees

“Hecla really does have a family feel to it,” Erickson says of the company’s culture. “We know all the executives; they visit quite regularly and are happy to sit down with employees and senior staff and talk about what’s going on in the company.” He says Hecla acknowledges employees in several ways: a bonus program that recognizes employees who hit safety or production targets; a social reward program in which employees can celebrate each other; and a program that doles out silver coins to reward environmental stewardship, as a few examples.

“We’ve got a real get-it-done group,” Erickson continues. “We’re trying to be a model in Alaska for environmentally safe mining. A commitment to responsible mining is one of our core values, and we are proud to strive to protect our people and our environmental footprint.”

Erickson says he’s proud of the mine’s approximately 450 employees and how they have tackled employee safety and environmental stewardship while operating a low-cost, world-class silver mine. “Last year was a pretty fantastic year, and it’s a testament to their good work.”

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