MiningMaven recently caught up with Eurasia Mining’s (LSE:EUA) chairman Christian Schaffalitzky to discuss the Russia-focused exploration firm’s plans following a busy news period.
Last month saw the business announce that preparatory work, including tree felling, had begun ahead of this year’s production at its West Kytlim mine in Russia’s Urals region. This is expected in April once the seasonal thaw sets in.
Meanwhile, the company is also continuing to make progress at its 80pc-owned Monchetundra project in the Kola Peninsula, where first palladium, platinum, and gold production is targeted in 2021. The business received a mining licence for the project in December 2018, and can now look to advance the project through construction.
Read on for more details on Schaffalitzky’s plans at its principal assets over the coming year as well as his views on the platinum market and Russia as an operational jurisdiction:
MiningMaven: Can you give us an overview of your plans at West Kytlim now that operations have re-started?
Christian Schaffalitzky: We are waiting for the ice to melt so we can start the washing process. If things go well, we could begin to produce in April. It depends on when the thaw kicks in because we need running water to wash the gravel.
The preparatory work required ahead of mining is relatively straightforward. First of all, the site contains ‘pay gravels’ that contain ore. We can start working on clearing forest and non-ore from above these gravels because we have identified where the platinum-bearing gravels are. Forest is removed, overburden is stripped back, and this is work that can be undertaken in winter and early spring. So that’s the immediate work plan.
We are actually mining sediments that are in an active river system. So, once the river is flowing, we redirect it for the section on which we are working and also the terraces on the side of the river, from earlier river systems. Those terraces are also platinum bearing, giving us several generations of sand and gravel that are potentially platinum-bearing. That is what we are looking for when we are exploring.
MM: Did the company deliver its production targets last year?
CS: We did, yes. We had an informal target of around 100kgs of platinum, and we produced 165kgs. So, we were delighted with our performance in spite of difficult conditions in the platinum market, where prices remained very weak as gold and palladium roared ahead.
MM: On that note, do you think platinum prices are basing and are ready to move up shortly?
CS: There seems to be a perception in the market that there is an excess of platinum globally, which is pushing prices down. This is because the metal is used primarily in catalytic converters in diesel engines, which are expected to suffer declining demand over the coming years.
Personally, I don’t buy into the idea that this dynamic is this simple. At current prices, around 80pc of the platinum mines in the world – or at least in South Africa – are operating below breakeven. They cannot keep working on negative income. You also have to remember that many of the underground mines in South Africa are old and, as such, are not mechanised. This could ultimately cause them to close, which would also throw up serious geopolitical concerns as they employ thousands of people who cannot be fired overnight. New mines are coming, of course, but as these older mines close, it will be a big problem for supply.
MM: So, with South Africa’s potential issues in mind, is the area of Russia you are based in prolific for mineralisation?
CS: Yes. If we focus on the Urals, it is famous for platinum. In fact, it was the first place in the world where platinum was discovered and then worked commercially. The Russians discovered significant platinum nuggets at the beginning of the 19th Century, and work has been going on since. Over this period, 16Mozs of the metal has been worked, so it really is prolific.
There are both small-scale and large-scale platinum mining operations in the river system. What you do not find in the Urals are hard rock platinum mines, which are present in South Africa. In other words, in the current environment, the only economic platinum that we see in the Urals is as alluvial deposits like our West Kytlim Project, which are also very low cost operations, relative to the South African mines.
At Monchetundra the focus is on Palladium as our identified ore bodies are at least 2:1 Pd:Pt. There are several other licences adjacent to our current permit and further afield, which we are reviewing. We believe Kola can be a really hot area on the global PGM map in years to come.
MM: Moving away from the Urals, what can you tell us about developments at the Monchetundra project?
There are a lot of elements in place at Monchetundra and a lot of things that we are currently doing. It is a complicated, big project, that very well may be a company maker for us. To recap, we have now completed a Russian style feasibility study to apply for a mining licence. This has now been granted and covers c.2Moz of palladium-rich mineralisation with platinum and gold as well as copper and nickel.
We now have to have the mine development approved by the government, and also by ourselves. In other words, we need to get the engineers at work now, to put together the actual construction of the mine, and to make the planned detailed engineering for the mine.
As part of this, we signed a contract back in 2016 with Sinosteel, a large Chinese engineering group to do an Engineering, Procurement, and Construction contract. They did an estimate at the time that said it would cost about $178m to construct the mine in roughly two years. They estimated that it could produce 130,000oz of palladium mineralisation per annum.
To do the project, they would finance 85pc of the $178 million, and they would carry that loan on their books until the plant was fully operational, or commissioned and handed over. And then it goes on to Eurasia's books. The remaining 15pc, which is roughly $24 million, is our bill- our equity contribution to the development of the mine.
However, at the same time, there is a cashback element to the project whereby Sinosteel sub-contract to us to do specific preparatory work. All that part of the work is subcontracted back to Eurasia. So, what this means is that we have to come up with $24m now, but we get $50m back, we believe less than what it costs to do the work. We've pretty much estimated that this will actually generate positive cashflow for our development.
MM: Excellent, so can you give shareholders any indication of when more information will be available?
CS: Right now, we are preparing the plans for all of this work and are making sure we have the licensing schedule organised with the government, and so on. There is a lot of paperwork involved in all of the aspects of the deal, and it does take time. We have to do it right, and we are a small company, relatively speaking, and this is a massive project, so we have to get it right. We will be providing further information to the shareholders in stages over the coming months with an update due soon.
Interview by Stuart Langelaan
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