ON BIRCH LAKE ROAD — The ride is bumpy and curvy, slow and methodical.
Even passenger trucks romanticized in television commercials as defying routes resembling a washboard, with Grand Canyon-like ruts and mini-boulders, must respect a road less traveled.
After all, no one ever said exploring is supposed to be easy.
But on a picture-postcard mid-October autumnal day in northeastern Minnesota, the rough route to this exploratory site of IDEA Drilling, about 15 miles east of Ely, is a pleasant journey.
The sunshine is warm and radiant; the sky a glorious textured and brilliant blue; the leaves, rustling in a welcome non-stop breeze, proudly strut their stuff and show off a bright rustic rainbow of fall colors.
The day’s weather is a godsend for IDEA Drilling workers, who are near completion of a job just off Birch Lake Road on leased state land.
“This is nice,” said one of IDEA’s workers. “It can get pretty rough and cold in the winter.” Like 40-below zero. And that can be temperature alone, not factoring in wind-chill. Meanwhile, their protection from the elements is the heavy-duty outerwear they don and bundle up in and a makeshift structure cloaked in tarps.
At this site, they are bringing up core samples from 3,500 feet below the surface for study by Twin Metals’ geologists, who will determine the richness of the minerals. Twin Metals, with offices in the Twin Cities, Ely and Babbitt, is currently in the pre-feasibility study phase of its Iron Range mining project. The company is looking at three mineral deposits in the vast and valuable Duluth Complex — the Maturi, Spruce Road and Birch Lake sites.
The Twin Metals’ job estimates are as big as its projects. The company anticipates:
• By 2016 more than 1,300 long-term will be on the company’s payroll.
• From 2012 to 2016, more than 5,000 construction jobs will be created as the projects move forward.
• For every one mining job, another 1.8 spin-off jobs will also be realized.
IDEA Drilling, which is headquartered in Virginia, is benefitting from Twin Metals’ work during this exploratory stage of their venture. Some of IDEA’s rigs (they have 19) and crews (they employ about 130) are involved in helping prepare Twin Metals to begin its copper/nickel/precious metals operations.
And most of their employees live on the Iron Range. On this afternoon off Birch Lake Road, Josh Banks of Hoyt Lakes, Bruce Ziminske of Soudan, Jimmy Snodgrass of Hoyt Lakes and Joe Johnson of Babbitt were working the CT 20 rig, which costs about $1 million fully outfitted.
The four-man crew will work 12 hours and then give way to a new crew for the next 12 hours. When an area is drilled, it’s a 24-hour/7-day job. A project supervisor is also on the job.
On this site, they are working a depth of 3,577 feet. The company has rigs capable of drilling down to 9,000 feet.
IDEA does work in several other states, including Montana, Colorado, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, South Carolina and Arizona.
The company has performed diamond core drilling services since 1997 for copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold. It also does core drilling for reserve definition for taconite mines. Company President Bill Travis said the firm has plans to diversify its business through expansion to new areas of development and to customers outside of mining.
That’s quite a success story for a company that was founded in 1987 in Montana by Dick and Pam Backstrom. The couple had one drilling rig at the time. They relocated IDEA Drilling to Minnesota in 1999; hired Travis as president in 2010; and built a 7,200-square-foot headquarters and storage facility in Virginia in 2011.
In 2012, the company made another key hire — former director of the Department of Natural Resources
Land and Minerals Division Marty Vadis, who had retired from the DNR. Vadis is a key team member, Travis said, especially regarding environmental issues.
Vadis is a strong advocate of both mining and the environment. He says they can be compatible, not in conflict.
Vadis points with pride to a current unit from a company in Sweden that is being tested by IDEA Drilling, which significantly lowers the noise level of drilling rigs. Noise is the biggest concern and complaint of property and cabin owners who are within earshot of drilling sites.
“They (the company) are testing the experimental unit here and hoping to make it a commercial product. We’ve had four engineers from Sweden on site,” Vadis said.
Vadis and Ron Burns, general foreman, then showed off previous drilling areas that have been reclaimed by nature, with the help of the company.
“We were drilling here a year ago,” said Burns. “It’s already starting to re-vegetate. It comes back really quick.”
That site was not far from the one currently being drilled.
The remote location also has several pipes painted red, signifying drill holes now abandoned and sealed for protection.
“We leave a very small footprint,” Vadis said.
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