STAWELL - Innovative forward planning has breathed new life into the underground operation at Stawell Gold Mines, ensuring the mine will remain open into next year.
Mine management announced in July last year that underground mining would be expected to cease by the end of this year.
At that time, mine owner Crocodile Gold announced that the company had completed operational reviews with Stawell Gold Mines management and had supported the decision to transition the operation of Stawell Gold Mines, which would see underground mining activities being completed by the end of 2013.
The decision to cease underground mining followed extensive exploration of the lower Golden Gift and Magdala lodes, which proved that the ore bodies were cut off by fault systems at depth, with the remaining extensions in the existing lodes unviable due to low gold reserves.
However, General Manager Troy Cole confirmed this week that while the deep mining operation was being wound down, further opportunities closer to the surface were discovered.
"We have been in the process of winding down the operation for some time," Mr Cole said.
"Between August 2012 and August 2013, our employee numbers, inclusive of contractors, have been reduced from 380 to 150. To this extent, we are changing our overheads and changing the way we operate.
"By downsizing our workplace, what that has allowed us to do, is explore other opportunities."
Mr Cole said by February this year, the deep mining operation had ceased and the program of moving all equipment and infrastructure to the middle levels of the mine commenced.
"While we were doing that, we continued to explore the upper levels of the mine to see what, if anything, had been left behind," Mr Cole said.
"From that exploration, we discovered there was still sufficient ore body in the upper levels and it was certainly viable for us to mine it.
"The gold price and our desire to realise further opportunity is driving us to continue with the underground operation at the moment."
Mr Cole said the mining in the upper levels, in the area known as Mariner's, would ensure the company maintained a steady workforce while awaiting a decision from Planning Minister Matthew Guy on the Environment Effects Statement for the Big Hill Enhanced Development Project.
The process of moving the EES into the public arena has been delayed, as further studies are considered by the Minister.
Mr Cole described it all as a balancing act.
"We are balancing both the responsible closure of our underground environment while still exploring other opportunities," Mr Cole said.
"As we are challenged with getting what is left out of the underground environment and while we wait for the planning process for the Big Hill proposal to run its course, we are still investigating underground options to marry these two projects together.
"We have an understanding of the extent of the Mariner's ore body, such that it will take us into 2014. How far into next year, we don't know, but we remain very hopeful that it will lead us straight into the next phase."
Mr Cole said there were numerous other projects that would ensure the mine maintained a strong employment base throughout the planning process for Big Hill.
One such project is the processing of material from Mt Mickie, adjacent to the Wonga pit.
Mt Mickie has been reduced by around four metres to date and the material is being processed through the mine's mill.
"By processing this ore, we are supplementing the mill and keeping our operation going while other processes run their course," Mr Cole said.
"We see this as making the most of our opportunities while we wait.
"We are tieing all this in with the processing of ore that had previously been preserved under equipment and infrastructure.
"Once the infrastructure was removed from underground, the ore body became accessible to us. We are busy processing that ore and at the same time, we are taking our opportunities to maintain a skilled workforce on site.
"We have even put a diamond drill rig back underground to continue searching for anything that has been left behind."
The diamond drilling is taking place in mineralisation above the Scotchman's Fault.
"This has been tested over recent years with marginal showings. We're not sure exactly how much ore there is, but it is once again making the most of our opportunities."
Mr Cole said originally there had been talk of the Environment Effects Statement going into the public arena in the November period, but this had now been delayed due to new flora and fauna studies being required.
He said in the meantime, the company's geotechnical program was being further strengthened by the extension of the drilling program and air and noise monitoring programs are also being strengthened further.
"We will certainly see a continuation of these and if things continue to move along as expected, then I suspect documents could go on public exhibition late in the first quarter (of 2014)," Mr Cole said.
"We could then see the process move into panel hearings near mid-year."