How would you characterize the growth strategy Hecla Mining Company is pursuing?
One of the key pillars of our strategy has been to find the best assets we can find in good jurisdictions. Greens Creek is a world class asset; Lucky Friday, based off the fact that it has been operational for 75 years, is also world class. Casa Berardi has that same potential, but we still have more work to do there. All three of those assets are large land positions with large resources and as a result of that we can take the time, energy and investment to figure out how to improve them. That is what we have done at Greens Creek, what we think we are on the verge of at Lucky Friday, and that is where we are headed at Casa Berardi. That is fundamentally our strategy.
How do you intend to boost profitability at Casa Berardi in Québec?
Casa Berardi is a good asset now and has been a good asset from when we acquired it. Seven out of the eight years Hecla has owned the asset it has generated positive free cash flow. It has done extraordinarily well, but we think it can be better. It is a 37 km long land position, and we have identified both underground and surface mineralization, so we have a strategy of moving both of those forward. It has a mill with a capacity of 4,000 t/d that was only operating at about 2,300 t/d, so there was a lot of capacity, and that has been our focus over the last eight years. We have now reached the mill’s capacity of 4,000 t/d, and the challenge moving forward is to establish the reliability of the of the operation, where we cut out interruptions that drive the cost up. Furthermore, if you look at gold recoveries at this mine relative to others it is relatively low, which is an opportunity. We have also seen material improvements in the recoveries going from less than 80% recoveries of gold to more than 90%, over the course of the last five years.
What are some of the ways in which Hecla has implemented autonomous technologies at Casa Berardi?
An existing operation putting in autonomous technology is a difficult task because the mines are not set up for that. We were fortunate in that we had a particular area of the mine that was isolated from the rest of the mine where we could put in remote haulage. As a result, we now have about 2.5 km of both haulage and hoisting that is completely autonomous. Our approach to technology in general is that we are willing to fail in order to discover improvements. Despite the experimentation, returns have been generated, and our haulage, hoisting and automation program has been a huge success. This is a model that we are going to take to our other mines in one form or another.
What are your views on future demand for silver?
Without silver nearly every piece of technological equipment would be bigger, as silver is the most conductive metal. It has played a fundamental part in the digitization of our world. Additionally, silver is a fundamental piece of the transition from an oil-based economy to a renewable-based economy. Silver is involved in solar energy photovoltaics, and wind energy where battery storage requires its use. All of that suggests that the demand for silver, which has grown at a 2% rate for these types of applications for energy use over the last decade, is probably going to continue to grow at least at that rate if not more. That suggests we are going to have a shortage of silver over the course of the next decade. Unlike gold, you have the industrial applications that only silver can effectively solve. There are almost no new projects to fill this growing demand over the course of the next five years. Consequently, the silver price is going to have to be higher to see new projects develop.