FLORENCE — Following years of hard-won state and federal approvals and other preparations, Florence Copper is at last producing copper on a small scale, according to an announcement from owner Taseko Mines Limited.
Over the past three months, the company has injected a weak sulfuric acid solution underground into approximately 1.5 million tons of copper ore. The resulting copper concentrations in the solution have recently become high enough to begin plating copper in Florence Copper’s solvent extraction and electrowinning, or SX/EW, plant.
“Taseko’s Florence Copper production test facility is fully operational, from the wellfield to the SX/EW plant, and producing copper,” the company’s news release said. Russell Hallbauer, president and CEO of Taseko, commented in the news release:
“As expected, and reported in our 2017 technical report, the initial leaching period has taken approximately three months and all results are in line with expectations. The scale up from our laboratory and feasibility testing to the commercial scale has been relatively seamless.”
Florence Copper is currently in a small-scale test phase, or “production test facility,” of its processes. It expects to produce 1 million pounds of copper over the course of its yearlong test phase. If the company receives the necessary state and federal permits for commercial production, it will produce an average of 85 million pounds of copper per year for 20 years, the company said.
Florence copper currently has 28 full-time employees and expects to add a few more in the coming weeks. The company is already looking ahead to full-scale commercial production, possibly including starting construction in the next 12 months.
“With the entire test wellfield and SX/EW plant now operating as a continuous unit, we will use the coming months to refine operational parameters which will help with the ramp up of the commercial plant,” Hallbauer said. “The proportion of ore contacted underground with leach solution (known as “Sweep Efficiency”) has been very encouraging to-date. Our modeling predicted a 55 percent Sweep Efficiency after the first year of leaching, and we have already achieved that level after the first three months.”
The in-situ process dissolves the copper underground and pumps it back to the surface for processing. Opponents of Florence Copper say the process could contaminate the town’s groundwater, but Hallbauer said in the news release it is working well.
“We have always maintained a high level of confidence in the comprehensive technical work we have undertaken on the in-situ process. The data we continue to collect from the many observation, monitoring and point-of-compliance wells is demonstrating the integrity of our injection and recovery process. Not only is the data proving that we are able to maintain hydraulic control of the leach solution underground, but it is providing valuable data to validate our leach model as well as optimize well designs and performance and hydraulic control parameters.
“We have steadily advanced the project towards commercial production, de-risking it considerably from when we acquired Florence Copper in 2014, and we expect to have a financing package in place and to be starting construction of the commercial facility in the next 12 months.”
Hallbauer said at full production Florence Copper will have an average operating cost of $1.10 per pound, among the lowest in the world.
“With a net present value of roughly $1 billion (in Canadian dollars), there is a huge disconnect with Taseko’s market capitalization. This valuation gap should close considerably in the coming months as we move closer to the construction of the lowest capital intensity project in the world, that will have operating costs in the lowest quartile of the industry,” Hallbauer concluded.