One thing that separates Mississauga, Ont.based Neptune Resources Corp. from dozens of other small but ambitious Canadian gold-mining companies is the kind of president it has. In an industry dominated by men in their 50s and 60s, Neptune is run by a 34-year-old woman. Margaret Witte, a metallurgist and native of Nevada, has raised millions of dollars to develop the rich Colomac gold deposit adjacent to a wilderness lake 220 km north of Yellowknife.
Although it usually takes six years to bring a gold mine into production, her target date for opening is the summer of 1989, only 2xk years after acquiring the right to develop Colomac. Said Witte: “Everyone is wondering, Ts she going to be able to pull it off?’ ”
The skeptics have based their ques-
tions on the fact that the project is unusual for several reasons. The Colomac mine will be the first high-volume, low-grade open-pit operation in
Canada’s North. Neptune plans to extract 10,000 tons of ore a day, containing only about 0.064 ounces of gold a ton. By comparison, large gold mines in Southern Canada are usually designed to handle up to 2,200 tons a day, at grades averaging 0.2 ounces a ton. Putting the Colomac mine into full production will cost an estimated $121 million, making it highly expensive by Canadian standards. And Neptune is proceeding on its own, without forming a partnership with any major company. But Witte’s strategy is to produce almost 200,000 ounces of gold per year, which would make Neptune a major Canadian gold producer on the basis of one project.
Witte’s aggressiveness is a result of 13 years of experience in the mining industry. After earning a master’s degree in metallurgy at Nevada’s McKay
School of Mines at Reno in 1975, she joined an American copper-mining company but was laid off during a downturn in the industry. She was then hired by the metallurgical division of the Ontario Research Council because of her expertise in working with low-grade ores. In 1981 she formed her own consulting company, Witteck Development Inc., in Mississauga, which provides a wide range of services to the mining industry, including detailed reports on how to develop ore bodies. After tiring of telling others how to build mines, she decided to acquire and develop a gold property herself. Said Witte: “I said if we can do it for everybody else, we can do it for ourselves.”
Undaunted: In late 1986 Witte took control of Neptune, which was a dormant company listed on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, and by January, 1987, Neptune had acquired the right to develop the 40-year-old Colomac property adjacent to Indian Lake in the Northwest Territories. Gold was first found in the area in 1938, and a second discovery was made four years later. The Colomac ore body itself was found in 1946. Between then and 1974 five different companies had drilled 144 holes to determine how much gold was there. But each company abandoned the property because of low ore grades. Undaunted, Witte envisioned a low-grade but high-volume operation like many she had seen in the United States.
Neptune acquired a 60-per-cent interest in the property in 1987, and Witte immediately raised a total of $18.3 million to conduct an extensive exploratory project at the site. Last year Neptune mined 40,000 tons of ore, then crushed and processed it in a small-scale test. In November, 1987, Witte and her staff celebrated a milestone by pouring their first Colomac gold—a bar weighing 100 ounces. The company now is trying to raise $121 million to begin production. By last month, said Witte, four banks had agreed to lend her $80 million, and the company hopes to raise the balance from a share issue in June. Neptune must build crushing and processing plants, as well as an airstrip, bunkhouses for employees, fuel storage tanks and other facilities.
Jewel: Although Witte has embarked on a huge and risky venture, she says that she is convinced she has also found an ore body with tremendous potential. “We have a real jewel of a deposit,” she said. “It sat there, and nobody recognized it.” If she is right, Witte may soon be toasted as the first lady of Canadian gold mining.
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