INTERVIEW: PDAC award winner on discovery in the Athabasca

Mineweb’s Kip Keen speaks with Fission Uranium’s Ross McElroy who has been awarded PDAC’s Bill Dennis award for a Canadian discovery.

The Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) recently said it would present the Bill Dennis award for an important Canadian discovery to Fission Uranium’s President and COO Ross McElroy for his part in finding the Patterson Lake South (PLS) uranium deposit in the Athabasca Basin. The discovery, which is still unfolding, picked up steam in late 2012 and was novel in many respects. For example: in its location – on the western edge of the Athabasca Basin – and the way it was found using Fission’s proprietary geophysical methods. In a Thursday phone interview Mineweb’s Kip Keen caught up with McElroy – who was in Singapore on a marketing trip – to talk about the discovery.

Kip Keen: I wonder if you might tell me why it is the western edge of the Athabasca Basin has gone underappreciated through the decades.

Ross McElroy: Sure. To begin with it goes back to the history of the discovery of the high grade deposits in the Athabasca Basin. The early deposits were found along the eastern edge of the Basin in a similar environment to Patterson Lake. The original deposits were Key Lake and Rabbit Lake, which is to the northeast of Key Lake.

But around the edge of the Basin there was a bit of a one-off type deposit, Cluff Lake. It was an oddity, but significant. It was on the western edge of the Basin and people would attribute its occurrence more to a meteorite impact than the typical geologic processes that form uranium deposits which we see on the eastern side.

So it’s really about herd mentality. You had success at Key Lake and Rabbit Lake and this is where people focus. The old adage is if you want to find a deposit you look around other existing deposits and look for another similar type occurrence. So, in this respect, it was a little bit obvious why the efforts focused on Key Lake, Rabbit Lake. Because those made geologic sense. They looked like repeatable type discoveries and that’s where the focus remained.

Cluff Lake was a bit of an oddity, as I said. It was considered a meteorite impact and I think it still is. In fact, I never cared much for that theory and I was fortunate enough to work with Areva, which did some exploration on the western side. We found what now has become the Shea Creek deposit in there. The discovery really highlighted to me that the western side of the Basin had just as much potential as the eastern side.

It’s just that – for whatever reason – people haven’t spent their time looking there; they’d been over on the eastern side. But it didn’t scare me at all from staking and holding ground positions on the western side given the belief that eventually with enough eyes looking at it you’d start to see the same sort of deposits there as to the east.

And PLS (Patterson Lake South) is justification of that.

We’re looking at shallow deposits at PLS in an area that had been virtually ignored. Even though there had been small amounts of exploration in the late 1970s, it was nothing significant. And there wasn’t anything found at the time. So that’s why the efforts remained untested for 30 or 40 years.

KK: The PLS discovery really encapsulates that evolution within the exploration business to greater dependence on geophysics. I wonder if you might tell me a little bit about the important role that geophysics played here.

RM: I’ve seen a lot of changes even in my 27 years of exploration. I’ve seen some real advancements in geophysics over the past 20 years. First, of all just: the resolution of the surveys. You get much higher depth penetration; better visibility of the subsurface geology.

But success in using the technique has always – and always will be – a function of interpretation of that data. Yes, the surveys are higher resolution. We can see more in it. But it’s so key to actually be able to interpret the data. Anybody can plug it in. It’s a garbage-in and garbage-out type scenario.

KK: In a sense you have to have a creative and logical mind for some of the simpler details like structures and where fluids might hold, and these sorts of things.

RM: Exactly. You’re looking for the right kind of lithology. You’re looking for extremely subtle changes in refined fault zones, for example, and alteration.

When I first started nobody did resistivity surveys, for example. But resistivity surveys have shown that they’re great for finding alteration. And we know that all uranium deposits in that part of the world occur in very altered rock. So that’s a measurable type thing.

That’s changed I’d say in the last 20 years.

And geochemistry is important because these are very small footprint deposits that you find in the Athabasca. So you try and employ other sciences like geochemistry to read the subtle changes in the chemistry of the rocks that may lead towards a uranium deposit. So you’re kind of vectoring in a lot more. And that’s where having good experience in the Athabasca really helps a lot.

I was fortunate to start off with Cameco. I worked on a significant discovery – McArthur River – where I got to see how geophysics and geochemistry played importants roles in discovery. These are all things that are going to benefit you further down the line and they certainly did in my career; in being able to look at data and look for the real things that matter. Your future depends so much on your past and that’s so true in this business.

KK: You mentioned in a recent interview with the Northern Miner’s Editor John Cumming that, and I’m paraphrasing, you’re proud of starting an area play on the Athabasca’s western margin. There has been a lot of staking since PLS was found. Do you think there are still discoveries to be made, whatever size they may be?

RM: Do I think there are other areas that can be found that people have overlooked? Absolutely. Even our discovery at Waterbury was in a fairly mature area on the eastern side of the Basin. That had been explored by Cameco and Areva. Yet we made a significant discovery looking over the same ground… (Cont’d below)



A map showing the location of key deposits in the Athabasca in relation to Fission Uranium’s Patterson Lake South discovery. Credit: Fission Uranium.

(Cont’d from above) …Part of it is that these deposits have such a small footprint that even if you’re the first guy with a great idea, you can easily miss it. It’s quite often the second and third generation of companies that come into a property that have success, especially if you’re looking at something that’s not that obvious.

Ideas change, models change and we’re seeing that. Nobody was looking outside of the Basin, really, because the conventional wisdom is that you need to be inside the Athabasca Basin. Well I kind of go with the philosophy that back when these deposits were formed about a billion years ago the Athabasca Basin margin was different than it is now. So PLS was probably within the Athabasca Basin at the time of formation of the deposits. It doesn’t really change that model. It’s just that people are looking at it with today’s eyes; looking at that boundary and saying well I’ve got to be within the Athabasca Basin.

Thinking outside the box leads to success; looking for structurally-hosted deposits outside of the Basin where nobody else had been.

To do it we employed a novel technique that gives us much higher resolution than what anybody else has. We flew the property and that led to the illumination of the boulder field on PLS. We followed this up with ground prospecting. And sure enough there was high-grade uranium.

The average grade of those boulders is 10% and that’s what kind of got us believing that there was a potential for a discovery on that property. Then we employed geophysics similar to what we would do on any other project in the Basin and that gave us the trend, the corridors. After that we did a radon survey, which is really only useful in shallow type deposits.

Radon is a gas given off by uranium that can be measurable. It quite often gives false signals but in our case it’s been an absolute great exploration technique. So we ran radon over the trend that we had already outlined with geophysics. It showed a number of anomalies along at least a 2km trend.

We tested that with drilling and that’s where we found high grade mineralisation in these pods directly below these radon anomalies. So that’s something of an old technique. But we revised it considerably; used it so it would be appropriate in the environment in which we’re in and it led to success.

Geophysics, radon, geochemistry, understanding models and how and where these deposits form, and looking at geology from a billion years ago: these are all things that led to success. And I think you can employ that in other areas of the Basin and still have success.

KK: I suppose being able to convince people that you’re on to a good idea and that it’s worth parting with a little bit of hard-earned cash to follow up on is just as important.

RM: Yes. That’s the next point I want to make. You have to have the cash in order to do it. You can sit around dreaming all you want. But without the cash to do it those dreams just fade away into the end of the sunset. We’ve been very fortunate. Our CEO is very good at raising money for us, which we can use and go explore. So my hat’s off to Dev (Dev Randhawa) and his ability to run this company and keep it very well financed, allowing us to do the exploration that we need to do for success.

It’s really a two-pronged approach for us. We have a very strong corporate team that raises money, and raises interest. And we know how to put that capital to work. We’ve built the best technical exploration team out there. That’s what has led to the success.. You really can’t be successful if you only have one of those things working for you. They all have to happen together and that’s where we’re unique.

(Ed. note: This interview has been edited and condensed.)



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