Mine owner has big plans

Silver Opportunity Partners anxious to get Sunshine operating

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After buying out the Sterling Mining Co. for a cool $24 million in an April bankruptcy auction, Silver Opportunity Partners LLC (SOP) has rolled up its sleeves and isanxious to start drilling test holes.

The hopeful result: Awakening the 125-year-old silver-spewinggiant which is the Sunshine Mine.

"We have a very aggressive drilling program planned," said Robert Higdem, operations manager of the Sunshine Mine. "The price of silver is great."

The lease to Sunshine was the most valuable of Sterling's assets. The lease was owned by Sunshine Precious Metals, and a purchase-option which SOP immediately exercised.

"There are no multiple parties or multiple leases," Higdem said. "The Sunshine Mine is now whole."

Since its closure in 2001, the mine has been under care and maintenance. Its 16 employees are just a fraction of the hundreds of jobs provided during its heyday.

Higdem said SOP is ready to get the diamond drill turning.

"There's a lot of excitement and energy in the group," he said.

But there are two major obstacles to becoming operational.

First, addressing the collapse of roughly 700 feet of the 3,000-foot Silver Summit Shaft, whichoccurred last January.

The shaft had been used by Sterling as a secondary escapeway, Higdem said, and must be remedied before the mine can go into production.

"Because of the inherent issues with the collapse, we can't just send people down there," Higdem said. "It's important to note that these things take time."

It is impossible to tell the extent of the damage, Higdem said, or what is required to shore up the shaft. He couldn't estimate how long repairs will take.

The other obstacle is locating prospective high-density pockets of silver nearly a mile underground.

It is a challenge shouldered by SOP geologists since August. In that time, they have pored over records and reports collected from more than a century of busting through rock at the location.

The data will be compiled in geo-mapping software programs, Higdem said, which will anticipate the location of unexplored silver veins.

"We want to make sure we are not wasting any effort," he said.

SOP is currently interviewing prospective diamond drillers and hopes to probe the depths by early this year, Higdem added.

"We've received bids and been in communication with those contractors that we believe are a good fit with the operation," he said. "Now it's just a matter of whittling it down to the one or two we want."

SOP expects the exploration period to last one to two years, Higdem said.

"Once completed, we can step back and say, 'Here's what we got, and this is what we're seeing,'" he said.

SOP is a privately held company owned by Thomas Kaplan. It is based in New York as part of the Electrum Group of Companies, an international investor in precious metal mines.

The Sunshine Mine has produced more than 360 million ounces of silver over its 125 years.

"(Kaplan) believes the Sunshine Mine is not dead, as many do," Higdem said. "He also believes in utilizing local labor and materials. What better group to choose from, than the people who live here and know it?"

While the company intends to be aggressive during the exploratory period, Higdem said, it will take a cautious, sustainable approach if it goes operational.

"The belief we have is founded in the mine's long-term, sustainable producing," said Higdem. "The best way to start that up is getting the diamond drill turning and get this thing moving toward production."

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