DRILLING BEYOND THE RANGE | MINE | VIRGINIAMN.COM

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VIRGINIA-BASED IDEA DRILLING EXPANDS OPERATIONS TO NEVADA, IDAHO

VIRGINIA — When training its Midwestern employees how to handle “unexpected visitors” that may show up at the drill site, the Iron Range’s IDEA Drilling schools workers on wood tick awareness.

The company’s drillers in Alaska learn about grizzly bear encounters and survival skills.

And now, employees have a new set of critters to lookout for at their work sites — rattlesnakes and mountain lions.

Lions and snakes and bears … oh, mmm … did we mention IDEA’s latest venture out West requires the use of helicopters?

The Virginia-based diamond core drilling company that launched nearly two decades ago and moved to the Range in 1999 to service the taconite mining industry has recently been expanding westward — last year to Idaho and this fall to Nevada.

While IDEA’s core remains on the Range, its growing geographies have led to new opportunities and experiences for employees.

Range native Max Motley, IDEA Drilling’s manager of health, safety and environment, spent early-October with the crew at the company’s helicopter-supported drilling project in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains.

The project, which started at the beginning of October for an Australian gold exploration client, Anova Metals, has been employing helicopters to move machinery — piece by piece — to the remote gold deposit, located north of Elko, Nev., where IDEA opened its third office.

“Most of the drilling is at 8,000 to 9,000 feet elevation,” Motley said.

Before drilling can even begin, it takes about a week to transform a location on the mountain into an operational site with a drill rig.

“You first have to build a drill pad,” Motley said. “You have to pour cement and build the platform.”

Copters are carefully maneuvered to fly in all the equipment and to assemble sections of the drill. At 150 feet overhead, with wind swaying the suspended objects, it is a difficult feat.

Pieces of the drill must line up in order for workers to bolt them together. It takes much precision and skill from the pilots, Motley said. IDEA has been working with a Canadian helicopter crew.

Lighter loads are hauled in first, with heavier pieces flown when the aircraft is less weighed down with fuel, Motley explained. “You can hear the torque on the rotor blades.”

Once drilling is completed at a site, the equipment must be disassembled — once again, piece by piece.

Diamond core drilling is a 12-hour-shift, around-the-clock operation, Motley said.

And when work is being done in the northern Nevada high desert, there are, indeed, creatures such as snakes and big cats with which to possibly contend.

“Zero civilization” nearby also means that everyone lodges together. “The project is pretty cool because we all stay at a ranch house at the base of the mountains — with the Australian client, the Canadian helicopter company folks, and whoever else is out there,” Motley said. “So the group dynamic is pretty cool — family-style dinners and breakfasts, with each company taking turns cooking and cleaning; and the whole family dynamic — lots of world perspectives and fun evening conversations.”

Not to mention, crews have the privilege of flying to and from their work site each shift, as helicopter is typically the only access route. It’s a perk of the job — if you like to fly. And “as long as the weather is nice,” Motley said.

The Ruby Mountains project will continue until the mountain passes are unnavigable from snow, he said.

Cold and snow doesn’t keep IDEA’s projects at bay in the Midwest. In fact, winter is the ideal time to drill in areas covered in wetlands in places like northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

The company has developed ways to perform safe and environmentally sound drilling during the cold and snowy months, such as designing heated drill shacks that are attached to the drill rig to keep crews warm and to ensure effectively functioning equipment.

It’s just one example of how far IDEA Drilling has come since it was founded in Montana in 1997 by Dick and Pam Backstrom.

The couple started with one drill rig, and moved two years later to the Iron Range to pursue taconite opportunities. “One rig turned into two and three,” Motley said.

By 2013, IDEA was up to a fleet of 20 drill rigs. A crew of 10 works each rig, he said.

IDEA’s mineral exploration projects have included core drilling for taconite mines across the Range, as well as for copper, nickel, platinum, palladium and gold discovery and pre-mining for nonferrous metals projects.

Equipment is capable of extracting core to a depth of 8,000 feet, or roughly a mile and a half below the surface, Motley said.

In 2014, IDEA Drilling acquired a sonic drill and began offering geotechnical drilling services, including projects for engineering firms and state departments of transportation — from installing monitoring wells to ground water sampling to continuous soil sampling.

“We are willing to take on the most difficult and unusual projects for our customers,” according to company information.

And IDEA has worked on many distinctive projects, such as using barge drilling rigs to access areas located beneath lakes and mine pits.

“We have drilled on Birch Lake a few times,” Motley said. IDEA also had barge crews on the Rouchleau Pit lake in Virginia, drilling to the bottom — all over the former mine pit — to find solid footing for construction of the Highway 53 Bridge project.

In 2012 when Motley began with the company, it had close to 150 employees.

But during the last several years, with the “downturn in base metal” — leading to rigs sitting idled at the Virginia headquarters and the number of workers therefore decreasing — IDEA Drilling “decided to go west,” where the gold is, he said.

In early-2015, IDEA opened an office in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, and acquired Marcus and Marcus Drilling, an Idaho-based diamond core drilling company, which has worked on Alaskan projects for decades. The acquisition added “The Last Frontier” state to IDEA’s drilling roster.

Like IDEA, the Idaho company’s founders are still involved in its projects, Motley said.

One of the more unusual projects IDEA worked on recently was for a client called NioCorp Developments. The project, south of Omaha, drilled for the highest grade niobium found anywhere in North America. Niobium is a rare earth element used in many types of military and aerospace equipment because it is highly resistant to heat and wear. It is considered a strategic metal, and “there are less than a half-dozen niobium mines in the world,” Motley said.

IDEA Drilling is focused on health, safety, environment and community — things clients look at when seeking drilling services, he said. And IDEA has worked with many mineral exploration and mining customers, including some of the largest and most recognized companies in the industry.

“We have earned our reputation as highly productive and fairly priced, along with an excellent safety record and a commitment to environmental responsibility. … IDEA Drilling is committed to being environmentally responsible and we continuously work to improve our drilling practices to ensure we protect and preserve our area’s precious natural resources,” according to the company’s website.

IDEA has also implemented sound curtains, insulation and other tools and processes to substantially reduce noise levels at sites near homes, cabins and populated areas.

The company additionally supports a variety of community organizations and Iron Range-area charities.

During the next few weeks, IDEA Drilling will launch two lithium projects in Nevada, as well as a project in California, Motley said.

“For just opening the office in Elko, it is great to have already secured five projects” within the first month and a half, he said. “We also are currently working on bidding a number of projects in Alaska.”

Of course, even as the outfit explores — quite literally — other parts of the country, IDEA’s presence will continue on the Iron Range.

“We are a small company, but we work with all the major players,” Motley said. “It will be interesting to see how 2017 pans out.”

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