A graphite deposit inspires plans for Bering Strait mine, infrastructure upgrades

A large mine at the Graphite Creek site could prompt Seward Peninsula port and road upgrades.

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Graphite One geologist Jeff Kase shows core samples from the mine site at the Alaska Miners Association trade show. (Yereth Rosen)

Graphite, the material used to fill simple pencils, is a building block for the modern, high-tech economy. With its thermal and electrical conductivity, graphite is a crucial material for lithium-ion batteries, and those batteries power the electric and hybrid vehicles that are replacing gasoline-powered cars around the world.

But the United States imports its entire supply of graphite, largely from China. That need not be the case, one Canadian junior mining company contends.

Vancouver-based Graphite One Resources Inc. is seeking to develop the nation’s richest graphite deposit, which lies on the Alaska side on the Bering Strait, 37 miles (55 km) north of Nome.

The potential for the Graphite Creek Mine has been cited as a justification for a new deepwater port at Port Clarence. The site, which until 2010 held a U.S. Coast Guard navigational station, is considered a good candidate for a U.S. Arctic port because it could accommodate deep-draft vessels.

But the existing port facilities at Nome, where water is shallower, could also serve the mine adequately, Stan Foo, head of Graphite One’s Alaska operations, said in a presentation at last week’s Alaska Miners Association Convention in Anchorage.

“The Port of Nome that exists now is really our base case for how the project would be developed,” he said.

If developed, it would be a “small open-pit mine” producing a little over 1 million metric tons per year, Foo said. From that, there would be 60,000 tons per year of graphite concentrate, which would be trucked out of the mine site to the port at Nome and shipped to Washington state, he said. There, a facility would use the ore concentrate to 41,850 metric tons per year of refined graphite for use in lithium-ion batteries and 13,500 metric tons per year of graphite powder for other uses, he said.

But even if the mine uses the existing port in Nome instead of requiring a new port, development would require some big infrastructure improvements. A new 16-mile all-weather access road and a power plant would have to be built, according to state officials.

The mine project has received a mixed reception in the region. The City of Nome, Nome Chamber of Commerce and the Native-owned Bering Straits Regional Corp. favor the mine, but some residents are skeptical.

A bill that would have authorized the state to give up to $80 million in financing for the project died in the legislature early this year. The bill, SB 203, would have allowed the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority to issue bonds to finance the mine, the access road, port improvements and other associated infrastructure.

State Sen. Donny Olson, the sponsor, put the measure on hold after residents expressed opposition to the financing idea. Olson earlier this year told the Nome Nugget newspaper that the bad experience with a prior mine — Novagold Resource’s Rock Creek Mine, which operated for only a few weeks in 2008 — has made some locals leery of the Graphite One plans.

Graphite mining is not new to the Nome area. There was a very small-scale operation at Graphite Creek that started more than a century ago. There is so much of the resource at Graphite Creek that visitors can pick up pieces of graphite on the ground’s surface, Foo said at the mining convention.

Graphite One has been evaluating the site for several years. The current estimate of resources at Graphite Creek is 44 million metric tons with 7 percent mineralization, according to the company.

Expect that number to change after results from this year’s exploration program are factored in, Foo said at the miners’ convention.

“We think we will have a very interesting update to the resources,” he said.

Yereth Rosen is a 2018 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow.