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They call it "gold fever" -- that frantic obsession with the world's primary monetary metal that onlookers often carelessly ascribe to each and every investor with exposure to gold.
If mid-tier gold miner Agnico-Eagle Mines (NYSE: AEM ) proved one thing with Wednesday's announcement that the company will cease operations at its Goldex mine, it's that this company does not suffer from the dreaded affliction. And as difficult as it may have been for investors to watch their stock careen lower by nearly 20% intraday, it's clear CEO Sean Boyd and his management team made the right call for all concerned.
It seems a portion of volcanic rock in the mine's hanging wall (the rock that overlays a mineral deposit) has failed, and that resulting intrusion of groundwater into the mine has led to "further weakening and movement of the rock mass." The bottom line is this: The mine has become unsafe for underground personnel, and not even the deposit's remaining 1.6 million ounces of gold reserves (soon to be reclassified as resources) is worth placing lives at risk. Even as a shareholder who just watched his holding decline dramatically, I applaud the decision.
I remember when South African miner Gold Fields (NYSE: GFI ) -- amid a horrific year that saw 40 miner fatalities at its operations during 2008 -- pledged that "if we can't mine safely, we won't mine at all." Seventeen miners lost their lives at Gold Fields' operations during 2010, and earlier this year the company suffered another five fatalities in a single quarter. Competitor Harmony Gold (NYSE: HMY ) suffered a fatal accident of its own just last month, losing one employee and two external rescue personnel in an "ore pass accident." South African mines typically extend to extreme depths, presenting a range of safety challenges to operators. Indeed, through the first half of the year, some 70 miners in South Africa paid the ultimate price for mankind's hunger for raw materials.
By shutting down its Goldex mine on the recommendation of a rock-mechanics consulting firm, Agnico-Eagle reminds investors that some things are far more valuable than gold. On the basis of the Goldex mine's contribution of 17.5% of consolidated gold production during the second quarter of 2011, the latest slashing of Agnico's market capitalization appears quite appropriate. However, it's worth pointing out that the company's gold reserves will suffer only a 7.5% reduction from 21.3 million to 19.7 million ounces, and that Agnico-Eagle's shares currently value those adjusted reserves at about $400 per ounce!
Despite this significant setback, my long-term investment thesis for Agnico-Eagle remains well intact, and I intend to hold my shares for years to come. From the company's exciting 9.2% stake in developer Rubicon Minerals (AMEX: RBY ) , to the pending acquisition of Grayd Resource for compelling development assets in Mexico, I continue to see CEO Sean Boyd making all the right moves in the face of repeatedly trying circumstances. Between the kitchen fire at Meadowbank earlier this year, and now this geological nightmare at Goldex, this company has been dealt some of the more rotten cards in the industry's deck. I seek to reduce my exposure to these sorts of unforeseen events by crafting my gold exposure as a basket of quality mining stocks, and times like this leave me pleased that I also own shares of competitors Goldcorp (NYSE: GG ) and Yamana Gold (NYSE: AUY ) . Nonetheless, I have held Agnico shares through a range of prior challenges, and I continue to anticipate a just reward for my considerable patience.