The tungsten “brain trust” on the Almonty Los Santos mine tour
In the first week of November, we went to visit the Los Santos mine, one of the largest tungsten reserves in Spain, with a view to seeing current operations and discussing the other activities of the company in Spain, Australia and South Korea. The CEO of Almonty Industries (TSXV:AII), Lewis Black was on site at the time, as were staff that had worked at or visited the company’s other operations around the globe. Interestingly the staff are composed of a strong component of Portuguese mine staff, many of whom are known to the company management since the days when the Almonty team ran Primary Mining, which owned the Panasquiera Tungsten mine in Portugal.
The Los Santos scheelite deposit is in the province of Salamanca in western Spain. It is 180 km west of Madrid, 50 km south of the city of Salamanca. The drive to the mine from Salamanca is an easy one over a double carriageway most of the way through flat to lightly rolling landscape. The area around the actual mine is low hills with a mix of small holdings. The cultivation of pigs is the major industry in the region as the “capital of Jamon Iberico” is a small town nearby where the pigs fed on acorns produce this famous and costly product.
Los Santos (pictured below) is a large village of around 2,000 people. The mine has become quite an important feature of the local economy over the nine years it has been operating. With around 65 contract staff and tens of direct employees, the mine has a significant trickledown effect in such a small community. It is also worth remembering that unemployment in Spain is 25% at this time and has been even higher since 2008 and that in isolated rural areas it can be significantly higher. The company has strong relations with local mayors and councils. It has even established its company “canteen” in the town, rather than out at the minesite. This has effectively doubled the number of eating places in the town!
The mine is one kilometre east of the town of Los Santos and there is a newly paved road to the mine gate.
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The Los Santos Mine
The Los Santos scheelite deposit was originally investigated by Billiton starting in 1979. Work undertaken included trenching and drilling. In one of the zones, Los Santos Sur, an 825m underground ramp was developed, along with level development at the 950m elevation, which provided bulk samples as well as underground drilling access. The ramp is still visible but has largely been consumed by the pit construction.
Billiton went as far as to carry out a pre-feasibility study of the prospect. By 1985, however, with a prevailing tungsten price of US$81/mtu, the project was not considered viable.
The project passed to the ownership of the ASX-listed company, Heemskirk. Under this new management the mine build began in 2008 and it was commissioned in July 2010.
The map above shows the minesite. Thus far one of the pits has been fully mined out and refilled. The blue represents the pits currently in production or planned. The two pits to the right (west) that nearly touch are intended to be combined into a sort of “super-pit” (well, not by Kalgoorlie standards) to exploit the mineralisation in the pit wall between the two existing pits.
The open pit operations are conventional drill and blast operations. The aerial view below shows the main pit with the green structure to the left being the processing plant and the Los Santos South (Main) pit being the bright white patch just right of centre. Towards the town at the top of the photo is a smaller Las Cortinas pit that has been developed over the last few years.
The production mining & drilling operations currently employ 65 people and this task is undertaken by a contractor. All of the other 68 employees on site work directly for Daytal (Almonty’s Spanish subsidiary).
For the moment plans for going underground have been discounted (while the price for APT remains where it is). In some ways the need for that strategy has been reduced by making the pits deeper and via the mini “super-pit” implementation.
The plant is located immediately to the south of the Los Santos Sur pit close to existing mine workings, the main waste dump and other infrastructure. The plant is now processing 500k tpa and is primarily based on gravimetric separation, aimed at recovering a high grade scheelite concentrate, so as to provide a concentrate containing greater than 68% WO3.
The image above is our analyst with the plant management inside the processing facility with the rod mill shown below.
Below can be seen scheelite concentrate running off one of the shaking tables under an ultra-violet lamp.
The process plant in the following picture.
Production during the three months ended June 30, 2015 rose 18.75% when compared to the three months ended March 31, 2015.
The main plant is currently undergoing a meaningful expansion to debottleneck operations and boost concentrate grade and recoveries. This expansion has been rather rapid only beginning a few weeks ago and expected to be finished before the end of November. The extension is being added to the end of the main building closest to us in the photograph above (which was taken before work began). Below can be seen the frame that was up last week. Cladding is probably already finished by now.
The latest additions will double throughput from the finishing circuit and remove what the company terms the “last bottleneck” in its process. It is expected that the extra pieces of kit to be housed in the extension will hike recoveries from 65% to 69% and boost the WO3 content from 63% to 67%. Output will rise from 5 tonnes per day to 5 ¾ tpd (therefore a 15% increase). The additional equipment has enhanced the ability to reprocess the tailings stockpiles.
This added production will come at no increase in staff costs.
On another score the company has been considering the issue of tailings recovery as specific areas where tailings have been deposited still contain economic WO3 grades. The amount in the dumps is a not insubstantial amount at half the level of the current reserve in the ground.
Almonty tested reprocessing the tailings stockpile by blending tailings with fresh ore during Q1 2014. Bulk testing of 100% tailings ore was run through the plant at Los Santos without any additional modifications. Recovery rates achieve exceeded expectations and management believes that target recovery rates for tailings reprocessing will be achieved when the tailings stockpiles are eventually reprocessed.
Los Santos is clearly the milch-cow that feeds the rest of the Almonty empire. With its reserve, its stockpiles, it tailings to rework and the planned mini- “super-pit”, it should have another four years mine-life at least. Wolfram Camp’s turnaround has essentially been funded by Los Santos as has the Valtreixal mine plan. Planning is already advanced for Valtreixal to pick up the slack and use equipment and personal form Los Santos as it becomes available. Then there is the Sangdong mine which really awaits a price turnaround to fire up its motors.
Almonty’s management team, last decade, managed to get one Tungsten producer (Primary Metals) off the ground and now they are on their second go-around. This time they are not building to sell it but rather putting together a long-term producer and creating that hitherto elusive investment opportunity, a geographically diversified multi-mine Tungsten player. As they say, seeing is believing and certainly the mine trip brought home that Almonty is a tightly run operation with somewhat of a dream team in having corralled a goodly proportion of the Western World’s Tungsten “brain’s trust” into its employee ranks.
Christopher Ecclestone is a Principal and mining strategist at Hallgarten & Company in London. Prior to founding Hallgarten & Company in New York in 2003 ... <Read more about Christopher Ecclestone>