Ontario’s First Diamond Mine
Hidden beneath an ancient sea 50 million years ago, beneath the glaciers 10,000 years ago and now beneath the muskeg, the Victor kimberlite is about to be uncovered. After 40 years of hard work, De Beers Canada will soon bring to market some of the world’s most beautiful diamonds from Ontario’s first diamond mine.
The Victor kimberlite lies in the James Bay Lowlands, 90 km west of the village of Attawapiskat. It is composed of steeply dipping pipes created by repeated volcanic events that left behind the Main and Southwest pipes. The average grade is only 23 carats per hundred tonnes (cpht), but the value of the Victor diamonds is exceptionally high at US$400 per carat. The average size of the diamonds recovered during exploration is 0.2 ct, using a bottom cutoff of 1.5 mm. The largest so far weighed 7.5 ct.
“Predominantly” all of the diamonds recovered during exploration and bulk sampling are gem quality, said Jeremy Wyeth, De Beers’ vice-president of the Victor project.
Anyone who has had the opportunity to see the Victor rough, or even photos of it, can attest to the exceptional crystalline shapes, clarity and colour of the stones.
De Beers’ $982-million investment will create an open pit mine and a 2.7-million tonnes/year (t/yr) diamond recovery plant. The life of the mine will be 12 years during which time 6.3 million carats of diamonds will be recovered at a rate of 500,000 to 600,000 ct/yr. Operating costs are anticipated to be $42/tonne, and the revenue is expected to come in at $120/tonne.
Construction at the Victor project began in earnest this year from the ground up–literally. Because the kimberlite lies beneath swampy muskeg, the roads, airstrip, laydown area and all building sites must be built with locally quarried limestone on top of engineered materials.
“The biggest building challenge here is to find a dry place to stand,” quipped AMEC‘s Brad Thompson. He is the engineering firm’s construction manager at the site.
When CMJ visited the 5,500-ha site last August, the airstrip had reached about 1,100 of the planned 1,500-m length. It will be an all-weather strip when complete in February 2007.
The site is bustling. The quarry and muskeg storage areas are established. Most of the building and road sites have been prepared. The 350-bed construction camp is occupied. The fuel storage facility, the fresh water and sewage plants were operational as was the incinerator (to dispose of all wet garbage). Test wells were being drilled in preparation for dewatering the pit area over the next year, and the South Granny Creek will be relocated. The laydown area is ready to receive 2,500 loads that will arrive over the 2006-07 winter road.
Construction has yet to be started on the processing plant, offices, workshops, warehouse and the permanent accommodation.
Overall, the project is scheduled to start production as much as six months ahead of schedule. Plant startup is planned for April 2008 and the commissioning stage has been shortened to six months from the earlier estimate of nine months.
The mine plan will create a pit that when finished will measure approximately 750 X 950 metres. Blasthole drills are on order, and the mining fleet of 100-t Cat 777 trucks and Cat 992 loaders are to arrive at the site in February 2008. Pre-stripping will begin this winter when the muskeg freezes. As production ramps up, 2.7 million tonnes of kimberlite will be mined each year.
The gravel foundation for the processing plant has been prepared. When complete, the 127 X 37-m building will house a conventional 7,400-tonnes/day diamond recovery plant. The operation is carried out without the addition of chemical reagents, a boon to an operation in a remote and environmentally sensitive area. Chosen for mineral processing are an MMD primary crusher, FFE scrubbers, Vibramech vibrating screens, a Nordberg cone crusher, Polysius high-pressure grinding roll, Multotec dense media cyclones and densifiers, Weir pumps, Strongco conveyors, Outokumpu thickeners, and GME Technology x-ray diamond recovery machines.
Processed kimberlite (PK) will constitute the rejects material from the dense medium and scrubbing circuits. It will be stored in the quarry until it is filled, and then in specially design PK cells.
De Beers has a thorough mine closure plan for the Victor project. It calls for removal of all buildings. Roads, buildings and waste piles will be recontoured to blend with the natural landscape, and the overburden and muskeg replaced before the site is revegetated with native species. The area will then be monitored for a minimum of five years.
A great deal of planning, work and money is going into a relatively short-lived mine. However, there are 15 other diamondiferous kimberlites in the immediate area and several promising exploration targets, so it seems unlikely that the Victor mine will be the sole producer in the James Bay Lowlands.
The triple bottom line
De Beers practices the triple bottom line–economic, social and environmental sustainability. The company plans to boost its bottom line with the profits from Victor; any profitable miner would do the same. But there is another side to economic sustainability, and that is the opportunities offered to the local First Nations.
Five Nations Energy is an example of the economically sustainable initiatives. This is a joint venture of the Attawapiskat, Fort Albany, and Kashechewan nations that is bringing a new electric transmission line from Moosonee to the mine site (the Attawapiskat-to-site portion was energized on Sept. 28). At the same time a fibre optic link will be established for the coastal communities. Although De Beers bore the cost of construction, the link is owned by Five Nations Energy.
The numerous joint ventures with the First Nations cover trucking, air transport, security, catering and more. Together the agreements are worth over $110 million, and the participants are gaining skills that can be used in other industries as well as mining.
“We are really proud of where we are, how we got here and our relationships with the local communities,” said Wyeth.
Fulfilling its commitment to social sustainability, De Beers has signed an impact and benefit agreement with Attawapiskat. Several training and educational initiatives have also been established. De Beers funded construction of a $800,000 training centre in Attawapiskat. The federal government recently added $7.87 million to this effort. Caterpillar established a training program for heavy equipment operators with Northern College in Timmins for six apprentices, all of whom were hired by Toromont, the mining fleet supplier.
The training initiatives are bearing fruit. In August, De Beers had 41 employees, including 27 from northern Ontario and nine from the nearby coastal First Nations, on its payroll. There are approximately 600 contractors’ employees working on the project, including 430 from northern Ontario, 253 from coastal First Nations and 77 from other First Nations.
De Beers knows that designing a new mine and processing plant from the ground up in a sensitive ecosystem takes a lot of planning. The site is designed with the minimum footprint so the least amount of area will be disturbed. As part of the assessment studies, the company engaged First Nations elders and made extensive use of their traditional ecological and cultural knowledge. The construction process is ISO 140001 certified, as was the exploration work. And the closure plan (see above) has been approved.
With a skilled team and thorough planning in place, the Victor project only needs hard work over the next 18 months to become Ontario’s first diamond mine.