Deep in the heart of Texas, molten silver is pouring once more. Following a 70-year hiatus, the legendary Presidio silver mine is enjoying a new lease on life as Aurcana's (OTC: AUNFF) newly commissioned Shafter silver mine.
I was on hand last Friday for the mine's official inauguration, and held in my hands one of the first silver dore bars produced from this deposit since 1942. These early pours are yielding a highly encouraging surprise, which we'll discuss after I relate a few poignant highlights from my visit to the mine.
A growing miner's nimble sweet spot
Aurcana has just executed a bold and convincing leap into the realm of mid-tier silver producers, bucking the industry's cost-escalation trend by completing construction of the Shafter mine ahead of schedule and under budget. With anticipated production of 3.8 million ounces of silver from Shafter over the next 12 months, Aurcana will now target 5.5 million silver-equivalent ounces and rival Endeavour Silver's (NYSE: EXK ) enviable production scale (excluding Endeavour's recent acquisition). And that's just the baseline outlook based upon the project's 2010 feasibility study! After meeting with CEO Lenic Rodriguez in January, I dubbed Aurcana "The Greatest Growth Story in Silver Today." Readers will recall that Rodriguez already has his sights set on blasting into the elite club of senior producers in similarly unabashed fashion.
Less than 18 months after construction began in January 2011, the bustling Shafter silver mine is already producing dore bars and scoping out some exciting potential for resource expansion.
Combining a nimble operating framework with exciting upside potential from ongoing exploration, I believe Aurcana now finds itself in the sweet spot of a quality miner's development that we've seen produce substantial shareholder gains in noteworthy silver success stories like Endeavour Silver and First Majestic Silver (NYSE: AG ) . Endeavour grasped shareholder value from the well of opportunity by responding quickly to new discoveries at Guanajuato with accelerated underground development and aggressive mill expansion. First Majestic CEO Keith Neumeyer hailed those super-spry days from earlier in his company's growth cycle as "an exciting time."
Today, I find Aurcana similarly adept at responding efficiently to opportunity, as epitomized by the seamless integration of a previously unplanned open-pit operation at Shafter. At the inaugural celebration Friday, Rodriguez described how he was approached by Shafter General Manager Jason Cyr with the proposal to mine the surface component of the orebody as an open pit. All within the span of a few short months, the plan progressed from opportunistic brainstorm to timely execution, and as a result the plant is already flush with an ample stockpile of crushed ore of impressive grade even as the underground mine awaits completion of a secondary escape shaft later this month before commercial underground production kicks into high gear.
From this precious stockpile of crushed ore, sourced primarily from the open pit operation, Aurcana is enjoying a very pleasant surprise (see below for details). The steel balls in the foreground are inserted into the plant's 2,500 tpd-capacity ball mill to thoroughly pulverize the crushed ore.
The Megaw factor
He may not be hounded by paparazzi like a Kardashian, but within the universe of mineral geology, Peter Megaw is something of a celebrity. Inside the galaxy of epithermal vein and carbonate replacement mineralization, moreover, one might even say he's a superstar. He co-founded MAG Silver (NYSE: MVG ) and played a key role in the discovery of several major deposits in that developer's impressive project portfolio. As a technical consultant to Aurcana, and alongside vice president for exploration Nils von Fersen, Megaw is hot on the trail of the sort of resource expansion that could transform Shafter with a far longer mine life than the modest five-year stint envisioned by the 2010 feasibility study.
I had the pleasure of listening to Megaw speak at length about his interpretation of the mineralized trend at Shafter as we drove out to the mine site Friday morning. His obvious excitement regarding the potential to expand the resource is downright infectious. Naturally, much of the company's current exploration effort targets areas nearest to the existing mine infrastructure to guide near-term planning and production, but Megaw reads the broader structure like an encoded roadmap that he hopes will lead to a "feeder zone" that could potentially yield a sizable high-grade deposit. While it is hard to quantify the likelihood of such a game-changing discovery, I am excited as a shareholder to know that Megaw is on the prowl.
Shafter's golden surprise
Rodriguez is a warm and affable guy with a quick wit. When I asked him about the surprisingly high gold content within the first couple of dore bars poured at Shafter, he joked about his supposedly pure silver deposit being "contaminated" with gold. You see, the Shafter mine plan does not call for any appreciable gold by-product, so the project's robust economics are solely a reflection of the deposit's solid average silver grade of 8.6 ounces per ton (in measured and indicated resources).
Aurcana CEO Lenic Rodriguez demonstrates one of the very first dore bars produced at Shafter since the Presidio mine closed in 1942. Rodriguez has two reasons to smile, as he celebrates not only the project's timely completion under budget, but also the encouraging gold content of these early realized results.
Shafter produced 35 million ounces of silver between 1883 and 1942 at an average grade of 15 ounces per ton (467 grams per ton). Former property owner Gold Fields (NYSE: GFI ) conducted $20 million worth of exploration and development work between 1977 and 1982. Nowhere within that deep well of history was the project thought to contain significant quantities of gold. And yet, gold accounts for roughly 11% by weight of the first dore bars poured at Shafter! While there can be no guarantee that these surprising gold values will continue, at 11% of the dore content, gold accounts for roughly 88% of the anticipated revenue from these first dore bars. Expressed another way, the market value of a dore bar containing 11% gold is roughly seven times that of its silver-only counterpart.
While I don't expect gold values to remain that elevated throughout the orebody, any appreciable gold by-product could significantly enhance the mine's economics. Alongside an average silver grade of 23.37 ounces per ton in Aurcana's latest drill result, representing the "highest grade intersection encountered to date," it's worth nothing that gold grades at or above 0.01 ounces per ton were detected in nearly every segment of the 30-foot intercept. Perhaps more importantly, these unexpected gold values from two distinct portions of the orebody are music to the ears of Megaw, as this gold could potentially help point the way toward the "feeder zone" that could truly provide a game changer for Aurcana and its shareholders.
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