The Palmer Project site is a historic gold claim where the Saksaia Glacier flows through the mountains. Prospectors have tried to strike it rich there since a man named Merrill Palmer made the first mineral discoveries in 1969.
Now the site is owned and operated by Constantine Metal Resources, a Canadian company. There’s no mine there yet, but a small cadre of scientists live there for half the year, looking for minerals.
Darsie Culbeck manages the camp for Constantine. He said geologists, hydrologists and chemists bunk in wall tents a stone’s throw from Porcupine Creek, about 35 miles north of Haines.
“You see we have activities like foosball or whatever,” he said. “It’s sort of like summer camp for science people. So, welcome to science camp.”
The “science camp” moniker downplays a sophisticated exploration project. Camp is a few miles from 10 million metric tons of copper-zinc-gold-silver-barite deposit.
The Palmer Project is a potential large-scale mine north of Haines. It’s one of six mining projects statewide that’s in the advanced stages of exploration. Supporters say a mine will bring high-wage jobs. Opponents say the risk to the watershed is too great.
Geologists there are test-drilling on 20,260 acres. They’re taking blind shots deep into the side of a mountain, hoping to find high concentrations of minerals.
Neal Maguire is one of those geologists. When we spoke, he was about to fly up in a helicopter over the claim and use GPS equipment to map the terrain.
“The surveys I’m doing today are basically collecting the reference point that we tie that data to. So it’s locating the data in 3D space,” he said.
This last summer was his third year working at the Palmer Project. Maguire is from Montana, but Constantine employs locals, too. The company says a mine would create hundreds of jobs. And they’re telling investors that the deposit is easy and inexpensive to mine. It’s on the same mineral belt as nearby high sulfide mines like Hecla’s Greens Creek mine and the Windy Craggy mine in British Columbia.
Fishers and the Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan are very concerned. When water runs over sulfide-bearing rock, it creates acid rock drainage, a problem for fish and for people if it gets in the watershed.
Gershon Cohen of Alaska Clean Water Advocacy said a mine at the headwaters of the Chilkat River isn’t worth the risk.
“There is too much history of large mines polluting public waters and destroying fisheries resources,” he said.
The Chilkat Indian Village of Klukwan, along with some other conservation groups, is taking a case against the mine’s development to court. They say the Bureau of Land Management should have considered the impact of a full-blown mine — Constantine’s goal — rather than the impacts of mineral exploration before granting the company land use permits.
Tribal Council President Kimberley Strong said a mine poses an existential threat to Chilkat Tlingits.
“This is a food sovereignty issue,” she said. “It’s having access to the natural resources that are around us.”
The Palmer Project is not as far along in the process of becoming a mine as Pebble or Donlin. They haven’t technically decided whether or not they’re going to develop a mine yet, but that’s the goal. This summer’s test drilling will help them determine if a mine would make money.
Science camp is closed for winter. But Constantine has a state permit to drill a mile-long exploration tunnel as soon as this spring. The company will finalize its 2020 plans in meetings this month.