Nordgold: Russia’s gold standard

Nordgold: Russia’s gold standard

One of Nordgold’s key strengths have been its top management, which has been instrumental in the company’s expansion, both domestically and outside of Russia. Today Nordgold boasts over 8,000 employees, spread across six countries on four continents.

“I think we’ve had a pretty dynamic management team, with a particularly high appetite for development and they’ve never been afraid of taking on projects that are outside of their comfort zone,” explains Matthew Wilcox, Project Director of the Gross mine project. “They started in 2007 through investment in the first mines in Russia and Kazakhstan and moved with the acquisition of High River Gold into the African market along with the expansion in Russia. It was a unique situation when a gold company with Russian roots obtained assets in Africa and continued to develop them, doing quite well out of them.”

Nordgold’s entrance into the African mining market also marked the beginning of Wilcox’s journey with the firm. “I was hired by Nordgold in November 2010 as the EPCM manager of the Bissa Gold project in Burkina Faso. About a year later I took over as the director of the project and another year after we poured first gold on that project. So that was a major milestone both for myself and for Nordgold – commissioning their first greenfield construction work.”

Following stints in Guinea at the Lefa mine, and a return to Burkina Faso for the Bouly mine project, Wilcox now works in Russia as Project Director for the Gross mine. “Nordgold’s big milestones from my perspective were the commissioning of Bissa and Bouly, and obviously now we’re looking forward in the next year to the commissioning of Gross,” he explains.

Golden opportunities

The construction of Gross will be Nordgold’s third greenfield project developed from exploration to production, following the successful launch of the Bissa and Bouly mines. “It’s a greenfield with aspects of a brownfield. There is existing infrastructure there but we’re basically rebuilding it all as a separate mine. It’s clean and easy in the fact that we haven’t had to pioneer there,” advises Wilcox.

Located in Yakutia, Gross is not Nordgold’s first foray into Russia’s Far Eastern region. “Gross is very close to the neighboring Neryungri mine, which was acquired by Nordgold in 2007. It was one of the initial acquisitions and Gross is a neighboring ore body to the Neryungri mine,” Wilcox adds.

New infrastructure

As part of the new infrastructure system, much construction work has taken place at the Gross mine. “We are constructing a 1,000-man camp, 10-bay truck workshop and a gold processing plant. Our output will be on average 230,000 ounces per year over the 17-year life of mine. The gold mine itself is a 12mn ton per annum heap leach,” says Wilcox.

“It’s a primary gyratory Metso crusher 50/65 leading up to two GP 500 Metso cone crushers. Primary and secondary crushing are then followed by approximately 3.5km of overland conveyors to our leach pad. The leach pad itself is retreat stacking using TNT stackers and portable conveyors. The ore is then leached with cyanide solution that is heated with waste heat from our power station.

“Cyanide solution is collected using a system of under heap drainage and the solution is then sent through carbon adsorption columns. The solution is adsorbed onto the carbon, which is then what we call the pregnant carbon. This is then put through a desorption column where it’s stripped of its gold. The gold is again converted to a solution, which is then electrowon to the point where it’s a high gold content sludge and then it’s put through a final refining step and it comes out as a gold bar.”

A great gold producer

Nordgold has conducted an extensive exploration programme to identify the Gross deposit and its reserves. “It has a 17-year mine life, relatively soft ore, and it should be a strong, low-cost, great gold producer,” Wilcox reveals. “It’s highly recoverable through heap leach so that’s one of the great advantages of it.”

Once commissioned – Nordgold anticipates this will happen in mid-2018 – the Gross mine will make a significant impact on the business. “We’re predicting about 25% increase in overall gold production from our current level” Wilcox observes. “It will take us well past the 1mn ounce produced goal, which is a remarkable level in the industry.”

Naturally, the Gross mine has resulted in substantial expenditure by Nordgold. “The investment to date is about US$150mn but the final investment number including the mining equipment will be around US$250mn. Obviously, that depends on the exchange rate between currencies. We’re financing it almost entirely from the cashflow from our other mines, so we’re not going into debt to build this project,” remarks Wilcox.

Climate challenges

Despite the advantages of the Gross mine, the site has also presented some challenges for Nordgold. “We’ve had to be fairly innovative to build and operate this plant in the weather conditions that we’re experiencing in the Yakutia region,” Wilcox explains. “We get temperatures down to -50 Celsius, so recovering gold, leaching and producing power are all challenging things in that kind of climate.”

In mining, every minute of production is important, downtime and interruptions to power are costly resulting in lost revenue and lost reputation. Reliable standby power is a must and who else would Nordgold look to for the provision of such power but Caterpillar. In the coming months, Vostochnaya Technica, Caterpillar’s Dealer in CIS, will install and commission two, 3516 generating sets which will maintain leaching operations in the event of power failure. The Cat 3500 engine platform is the industry standard for heavy duty diesel and gas engines worldwide. Cat’s 3516 generating sets offer the field-tested power capabilities and reliability that make them, and Caterpillar Electric Power, the go-to power source for work in some of the world’s most extreme environments. The first of their kind to be installed in Yakutia, these generating sets will be supported by Vostochnaya Technica through the provision of a stock of consumable parts and the assignment of two support engineers who will provide routine and emergency service and maintenance.

Indeed, extreme temperatures is what Yakutia is famous for. Only Antarctica has recorded lower temperatures than some parts of this region in the extreme north of Asia.

“We generally work down to around -40 Celsius, at least outdoors, and then it becomes very hard on the equipment. Our plant will be all-weather when it’s enclosed and will be capable of operating in Arctic climate conditions,” says Wilcox. “The plant should be operable even in the most extreme climate. It’s not exactly in an easy position – it’s got challenging topography, alongside access to the site itself but there’s enough gold and we have to work around these things.”

The Gross mine is certainly remote – it is located 100km from the nearest community. Despite this, Nordgold is keen to give back to the indigenous people of Yakutia. “Nordgold tries hard to bring zero harm and is supportive of the local community in all regions we operate,” acknowledges Wilcox.

In Yakutia, Nordgold supports communities that live on the territory where the Neryungri mine operates. Indigenous people called Ewenki represent a part of this community. This ethnic group has been living in Yakutia for centuries and reindeer breeding has always been their traditional occupation. Apart from providing jobs for these people, building schools and houses for young professionals, the Neryungri mine helps the Ewenki to maintain their traditional lifestyle tightly related to the reindeer breeding – Nordgold provides herders with gasoline, goods and transport.

“Our approach certainly depends on the project and where it is. Obviously, the community’s not as big a thing at Gross where it’s a very remote project, but certainly during my work on the Bouly project, we completed a resettlement project for 3,000 people,” Wilcox reveals.

Advanced explorations

In addition to Gross, Nordgold has several other projects it intends to develop. “There is our French Guiana project – Montagne d’Or – and then there’s exploration project Pistol Bay in Canada, and some other Russian projects. I think Nordgold is one the bolder companies and it’s already got a very well-advanced development pipeline,” Wilcox concludes.

Matthew Wilcox