PUBLISHED: 4:14 PM on Wednesday, October 10, 2007
High precious metals prices bring Canadian companies in to Alaska
The price of gold rallied to a quarter century high last week. In early October in New York it was trading for $743 an ounce, up from about $525 an ounce in early 2006. The last time it reached the $700 territory was in 1980.

What will it take for gold to reach $1,000 an ounce? That was the question financial media Barron's Online put to John Hathaway, who runs the $1.1 billion Tocqueville Gold Fund. Its performance is up 12 percent this year.

"I don't think it will take much," Hathaway told Barron's. He cited difficulties companies are having pulling gold from the earth, and even more trouble adding production.

In Alaska, the high price of gold is keeping Kerwin Krause busy. Krause manages the Mineral Property Division for the state's Department of Natural Resources. The division grants permits to companies interested in mining on state lands.

He said the division has issued about 150 new permits for hard rock exploration in the past year. Most of the operations are run by mid-sized Canadian companies traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. Krause said a dearth of skilled workers is holding back some projects.

"There's a shortage of drills, drillers and geologists in the state to do all the work the companies want to do," he said.

Addressing that shortage is the mission of the University of Alaska

Southeast's new mine training center. The regional center will serve all of the panhandle and offer a five-week, full time program in entry level mining skills. Fifteen students are expected to enroll in the first session that begins in mid-October.

A second one will start early next year. The 50-thousand-dollar training program is funded by the state.

Darwin Green is vice president of exploration for Niblack Mining Corporation, which is based in Vancouver, Canada. It has a project on

Prince of Wales Island that one day could yield gold, copper and silver. Green said its current phase involves building a mine tunnel and other developments at a cost of up to $15 million dollars. He said the company tries to hire locally, but doesn't always find the skills it needs. It's looking for between 20 and 30 workers.

"A training center like this is quite critical because a lot of companies don't have the time and resources to train people adequately so the more people that can get trained here, the better," he said.

Some state officials see mining as a way to entice young people to rural areas. Alaska Department of Labor Commissioner Click Bishop said appealing jobs in mines could help Juneau stop its brain drain of workers under age 40.

But the working conditions can be noisy and in dark, confined spaces. And a recent incident in one of South Africa's largest mines points up potential hazards of the job. Earlier this month, rescuers freed 3,200 gold miners trapped for more than 24 hours in a subterranean shaft, after a busted pipe in the Elandsrand mine not far from Johannesburg knocked out the elevator.

No one died, but the mine's owner and South African government officials vowed to make working conditions safer.

"They're good jobs, good paying jobs. You have people making on the high end, $70,000 plus a year and that's a good wage," Bishop said.

In July about 2,200 people were employed in mining in Alaska, according to Labor Department figures.

The industry's wages and opportunities are linked to the price of metals. UAS ran a mine training program about 20 years ago, but had to shut it down when hiring stopped. That's according to Dennis Steffi, director of the University of Alaska's mining and petroleum training service.

"In the 1980s the price of metals went down rapidly and we were working at that time with AJ Mine and the Kensington property as well as Green's Creek Mine on Admiralty.

Metal prices had fallen to the point where it just made sense to wait and back off until they improved, and they have considerably now."

Steffi thinks the booming economies of China and India could keep metal prices up.

He said everything from cars to computers use metals found in Alaska. Even so, Steffi, who follows the price of gold daily, refused to speculate on how long it would remain in record territory.

"It's not that I'm superstitious," he said.