A small valley in the northern B.C. Coast Mountains may be a world away from Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. But take away the snow and add a treasure trove of riches, and it’s easy to see why the two now share a name. The alpine valley sits above Brucejack Lake, north of Stewart. When early drill-core samples revealed visible seams of gold, one of the head geologists got excited. “It’s like the Valley of the Kings,” the geologist gushed. He was referring to the desert wadi near Thebes, Egypt, famous for its 63 tombs full of golden objects, many discovered through the vision and persistence of archeologist Howard Carter.
Recently permitted for construction, the Brucejack project’s Valley of the Kings may yield more riches than its ancient namesake, largely thanks to its own Carter, geologist-turned-CEO Robert Quartermain. He founded Pretium Resources Inc. in 2010 with the acquisition of the Brucejack property.
“It was risky [acquiring the Brucejack property],” he says. “I looked at a drill core and saw something I’d seen before at the Red Lake mine in Ontario – a seam of visible gold. We took a big chance.” Like Carter before him, Quartermain made the bet by relying on a career spent digging stuff up.
Quartermain was supposed to be a computer programmer. During his undergraduate degree at the University of New Brunswick, geology was the minor to his computer science major. But Quartermain grew up in Boy Scouts. “I liked being outside and active,” he says. Geology field camps in second and third year started to change his mind. “We did some really interesting field trips around Saint John and Fredericton,” he remembers. Then, in his fourth year, he learned three-dimensional modelling of deposits from surface geology. “I found it quite energizing,” he says. It was enough to convince him to swap his major and minor.
Out of school in 1977, he got a job prospecting around Baker Lake in present-day Nunavut, hunting for uranium and gold. A couple years later, he returned to university, this time to Queen’s, for a master’s degree in mineral exploration. He landed a job with Teck Corp. working on the David Bell project in Ontario’s emerging Hemlo gold district. “I was there when some of the first drill holes full of gold mineralization came out of the ground,” he says.
The excitement hadn’t diminished when he received the offer that would change his career. Despite a lack of experience with boardrooms or lawyers – he didn’t even own a suit – Teck asked Quartermain to move to Vancouver to manage Silver Standard Resources. It was 1985, and metal prices were at the bottom of a cycle. Silver Standard’s stock was trading at $1. The $2-million company had one employee, a corporate secretary. Quartermain steadily helped turn things around. He shrewdly bought global silver deposits just before prices started to recover. Along the way, Silver Standard acquired Brucejack.
From 2006 to 2008, Silver Standard morphed from explorationist to developer when it moved ahead with its Pirquitas property in Argentina. The transition was challenging, and new leadership with mine-operations experience was recruited. Quartermain retired in January 2010 and set off to drive across Canada.
Along the way, he heard that Silver Standard wanted to sell Brucejack. Then he saw core from hole SU 84, drilled in the summer of 2010, with a visible seam of gold. “In my 35 years in the business, seeing this piece of drill core with this amount of gold told me you don’t get this kind of high-grade gold unless there is more of it,” says Quartermain.
When he got home to Vancouver, he began pulling together a strategy to buy Brucejack. But first he needed a name.
At Silver Standard, he had spent 25 years growing value for shareholders, raising the share price from $1 to $45. “I [wanted] to do the same at Brucejack,” he says. “So, I googled ‘value’ in Latin.” “Pretium” popped up on his screen. Because he wanted to create “value through gold,” he added a “v” in marketing material, changing the name to PRETIVM. The company had its initial public offering in December 2010 with the stock-market symbol PVG.
With the name, financing, and a team made up of many Silver Standard colleagues, including Joe Ovsenek and Ken McNaughton, Quartermain began a focused exploration program at the Brucejack project’s Valley of the Kings, investing almost 20 per cent of B.C.’s total exploration spending for 2012 and 2013. A sample of gold ore from underground sits in his office.
“I call it the ‘Wow!’ rock,” Quartermain says. Veins of gold glisten. He figures it contains up to 70 ounces of the precious metal. “Whenever someone picks it up they say, ‘Wow!’”
After a 2013 feasibility study suggested an estimated 7.3 million ounces, Pretium began the mine-application process.
Pretium already had good relations with local First Nations. In Silver Standard days, the Skii km Lax Ha helped with exploration construction. Throughout the development of the Brucejack project, Pretium has continuously employed and contracted various local First Nations.
As the project advanced, discussions expanded to include the Nisga’a and Tahltan. Pretium has since signed a Co-operation and Benefits Agreement with the Nisga’a.
With First Nations consultation well underway, the other prerequisites fell into place.
“We don’t have to mine a lot of tonnage to get a lot of gold,” he says. It’s such a rich deposit that slumping gold prices won’t touch the mine’s feasibility – Quartermain says it’s profitable even with gold at $800 an ounce.
The underground mine will have a small footprint. Half of the tailings will go back into the mine. The nearest fish-bearing water is 20 kilometres downstream. There is no tailings pond. Thus, the Mount Polley mine accident didn’t impact the approval process, says Quartermain.
Add it all up, and Brucejack received all of the major provincial and federal approvals required in 2015 – B.C.’s newest mine was a go.
“We’ve met all the major challenges,” he says. “Now it’s all about the execution.”
The plan is to build a US$746-million mine with an 18-year lifespan, producing up to 504,000 ounces of gold per year. Trucks will haul the gold concentrate out by access road to Highway 37. During operation, the mine will employ 500 full-time staff.
After the experience with Pirquitas at Silver Standard, Quartermain recruited James Currie as chief operating officer, adding mine- building and operations experience. Currie helped bring New Gold Inc.’s New Afton gold mine into production ahead of schedule and has overseen gold mines in the United States, Australia and Mexico. Quartermain says that, under Currie’s eye, Brucejack will go into production in 2017.
It all leaves Quartermain buoyant about B.C. “I’ve worked around the world,” he says. “I’m glad to be in B.C. I can fly up to the mine and be back at home the same day. That’s nice.”
“I also think Brucejack shows that there’s a lot of geological possibility in this province,” he continues. “We’re building a B.C. mine, using B.C. technology and B.C. expertise. There are still world class deposits left to discover here and an industry that’s ready to develop them.”