Hecla Mining’s Isidora gold mine is the third operation in just one week in Venezuela’s mineral rich Bolivar State to suffer a roadblock. Venezuelan workers have stalled operations of the country’s largest gold miner, citing poor working conditions and demanding that President Hugo Chavez nationalize the mine.
Vicki Veltkamp, VP of investor and public relations for Hecla told RI that Isidora has been halted for eight working days by a group of around 40 workers, out of a total of about 300, who blocked the mine's entrance. She confirmed that some miners were calling for Chavez to take over the mine, but said the government has made no communication to this effect.
Veltkamp said the disruption stemmed from the firing of three workers. Venezuela has in place a firing freeze, whereby employers must prove to the Labor Ministry that something illegal was done on the property to terminate employment. Hecla received such authorization, but workers protested the action shortly thereafter, according to Veltkamp.
Hecla Mining [NYSE:HL] has been operating successfully since 1999 in Bolivar State. In 2007, the La Camorra Unit produced 87,490 ounces of gold at an average total cash cost of $537 per ounce. The mill contributed about 3% to the company's sales last year.
We often have work stoppages ... and we take that into account in production estimates for the year, said Veltkamp. She added that no revisions are planned at this time for 2008 production, which is slated to come in under 85,000 ounces.
Veltkamp reiterated that the Venezuelan operations only make up a small portion of the company’s overall portfolio. She said at the current rate of reserve drawdown, the Isidora mine has a merely a few years left in its mine life. She said a decision whether to dig deeper to extend the life of the mine had not yet been made. Other exploration properties are currently shelved awaiting permits.
The disruption comes just one week after Crystallex [AMEX:KRY; TSX:KRY] and Gold Reserve [AMEX:GRZ; TSX:GRZ] were denied environmental permits needed to begin development and production at Las Cristinas and Las Brisas in Bolivar State.
On April 30, Crystallex announced that it has been denied the much-awaited environmental permit to develop its Las Cristinas project. The Director General of the Administrative Office of Permits at the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources of Venezuela (MinAmb) cited sensitivities surrounding indigenous peoples, the small miners and the environment in the area generally known as the Imataca Forest Reserve.
Crystallex had been waiting for the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) permit since early April 2004, drilling up reserves of 16.86 million ounces of gold, as well as measured and indicated resources of 3.9 million ounces and inferred resources of 6.28 million ounces.
Gold Reserve Inc., which controls the Las Brisas property abutting Las Cristinas, received the Permit to Affect Natural Resources from MinAmb in March 2007, after applying for it in December 2005. However, the company also announced on April 30 that MinAmb was rescinding the permit, citing the same concerns as supplied to Crystallex.
Las Brisas contains reserves of about 10.229 million ounces of gold and 1.389 billion pounds of copper. Indicated mineral resources show 11.8 million ounces of gold and approximately 1.6 billion pounds of copper, while inferred resources reveal 2.28 million ounces of gold and 316 million pounds of copper.
However, both Las Cristinas and Las Brisas are located in the Imataca Forest Reserve, with is subjected to more stringent environmental controls than areas outside of the boundaries. Veltkamp confirmed with RI that even though the La Camorra mill was in close proximity to the forest, neither the mill nor the Isidora mine were within the Reserve’s boundaries.
Likewise, Rusoro Mining [TSX-V:RML] confirmed in a recent statement that it was in possession of all necessary permits to produce gold at the Choco 10 Mine in Bolivar State, also located outside the Imataca Forest Reserve. The project has measured and indicated resources of 4,451,000 ounces of gold and inferred resources of 2,870,000 ounces.
Veltkamp pointed out that Hecla’s gold mine is already in operation with a positive track record stretching 9 years. She said that Hecla has always cooperated fully with the government and has never received any communication indicating otherwise.