The timing couldn't have been better for Tom Irwin, as last December he stepped into the lead management position at the Fort Knox gold mine near Fairbanks.
Then, Fort Knox's milling operation was in the process of setting an all-time record high for productivity; gold prices were just on the cusp of an upswing; and recent acquisitions of rich satellite sites made for a bright future.
"We're in a very comfortable position, yet you never take anything for granted," said Irwin, who was named general manager of Alaska's largest gold mine on Dec. 10,1999 by Fort Knox's owner, Toronto-based Kinross Gold.
But don't think that Irwin is an Outsider or a Canadian who inherited a long-established, cushy job in the Last Frontier. Rather, Irwin has been a part of the Fairbanks area hard rock operation since 1992, when Fort Knox was little more than a large, low-grade gold deposit believed to be too expensive to permit, build and mine by most in the industry.
Back then, Irwin was general manager of the Sleeper gold mine in Nevada, a 250,000 ounce-per-year producer owned by Amax Gold. Executives of Amax and its parent company, Cyprus Amax, decided to bite the bullet and try to develop the Fort Knox deposit in Alaska, then notorious for a decidedly difficult permitting process and regulatory rules.
Irwin was part of the development team brought to Alaska to obtain permits and build Fort Knox. As operations manager and start-up manager, milestones such as the first gold pour in December 1996 stick in his mind.
He also vividly recalls the mine's crew response to an emergency situation just a month later. "We lost our corner (electric) pole and were without power for 55 hours," he recalls. "It was great to see all of that training and all the design for cold weather really work, and to see the plant start running again when it was 42 below out there."
More recently, Fort Knox has hit some production records and milestones. For starters, the mine poured its millionth ounce of gold on Sept. 27,1999, about three months ahead of schedule.
"Many mines never reach a million ounces," Irwin said. "This is a pretty short timeframe to make your first million ounces, just a tad less than three years."
Former general manager Steve Lang, who left Fort Knox in October to take a position with Rio Algom in Chile, credits accurate deposit predictions, an enhanced gold recovery and an increase in production for the early achievement of mining one million...