De Beers had been hiring exploration teams to search for diamonds in the kimberlite-rich area since the 1950s.
In the middle of the summer, exploration teams are typically flown home for a break, but Wood stayed behind to look after the camp. His father joined him to do some fishing on the Attawapiskat River.
One afternoon, Wood and his father stumbled upon a fist-sized diamond bearing kimberlite on the river’s shoreline.
It was a discovery that would lead to the De Beers Victor Diamond Mine – the first diamond mine in Ontario.
“It was pretty exciting when I found the kimberlite. I was pretty convinced it was what we were looking for,” he said.
“I had no idea it would eventually lead to a mine. I knew what the odds were of finding a kimberlite, let alone finding diamonds in a kimberlite. There’s only about 1 in 1,000 kimberlites that actually contain diamonds. There’s even less chance of finding a deposit that becomes a mine.”
Further exploration uncovered a diamond-bearing kimberlite with a surface area of 15 hectares, and consisting of two pipes that coalesce at the surface: Victor Main and Victor Southwest.
Wood has stayed on with De Beers over the years, prospecting in Alberta and the Northwest Territories and working at a diamond mine in South Africa. He is now the technical services manager at the Victor Mine.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the changes that have taken place. You actually see a lot of the same people that were working on our exploration and evaluation teams from the surrounding communities who are now working at the mine with a good job.”
The Victor Mine has been ramping up production since Jan. 20, and full production is expected to be achieved by the first quarter of 2008.
The Victor Mine was scheduled to start production March 1.
“What we’re doing is testing our circuits and making sure everything is working as designed,” said Peter Mah, general manager of Victor.
“We are completing final construction and build work and gathering information from the processing circuit so that, as we reach steady state, we have some information on how to actually run the circuits to an optimal level.”
The mine is scheduled to be in production for 12 years, but further exploration is in progress because Victor is just one of 16 diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes in the area.
Feasibility studies, environmental assessments and regulatory processes started in the late 1990s and were finally completed in late 2005. Construction started in February 2006 and has proceeded at a rapid pace.
“We had to quarry our own limestone and we needed to build roads and foundations to put concrete on. We had to build a small infrastructure and that took most of 2006,” said Tom Ormsby, manager of public and corporate affairs at the Victor Mine.
“Late in 2006, we started to focus on the other things we needed, such as the process plant. It was a very aggressive construction campaign.”
Construction work on the mine has been very safe. In November 2007, workers reached a milestone of three million hours worked without a lost time injury.
Because the mine is located on the traditional lands of the Attawapiskat First Nation and the Moose Cree First Nation, De Beers has made an effort to ensure aboriginal people living in the area are benefitting from their operations.
There were some bumpy relations between De Beers and the local aboriginal population. In 2005, a few members of the Kashechewan First Nation set up a blockade on the winter road being used to transport construction materials to the site.
Community members initially said the blockade was set up because they didn’t want the Highway Traffic Act enforced on the winter road that crosses their land. De Beers later put out a press release saying the community members set up the blockade to secure further financial compensation.
The company eventually worked out a solution to the dispute and there have been no further blockades on the winter road.
De Beers has negotiated Impact Benefit Agreements with the Attawapiskat First Nation and the Moose Cree First Nation, and has a working agreement with the Taykwa Tagamou First Nation.
“Impact Benefit Agreements are tailored for each community. We sit down and discuss the impacts from the mine and we look at the community’s goals,” said Ormsby.
“A lot of them have to do with employment and business opportunities. During construction, we had $145 million in joint ventures with First Nation communities. These are the things that the agreements lay out.”
Approximately 700 people out of the 3,000 people hired during the construction phase were from surrounding communities.
Mah said he’d like to have a significant percentage of the 375 people who will work at the mine during production come from surrounding communities as well. The company recently trained 24 local aboriginal people to work in the diamond processing plant.
Most of the employees will work on a two-week rotation and then be flown home to spend time with their families.
The diamonds will be mined using traditional open pit mining techniques. The material will then be fed through a crusher and conveyed to the process plant.
“There are stages of washing and scrubbing and further reduction in size. It then goes through a dense media separation, which separates the diamonds from the waste material,” said Mah.
“The diamonds and the heavier particles then pass through our final stage of processing, which ends up with x-ray sorting. The end product is a cupful of diamonds.”
The process plant will treat 2.5 million tonnes of kimberlite and recover 600,000 carats of diamonds per year.
The technology used to recover the diamonds was developed by De Beers, but most of the components used in the plant were supplied by Northern Ontario companies, he said.
After the supply of diamonds is exhausted at Victor in 2020, the site will be returned to a more natural state. This process will take another five years.
“We have money set aside already for our closure plan,” said Ormsby.
“The closure plan would be to return the area to its natural state as best as possible. That program had actually already begun even before we started construction.
“We have a program with Laurentian University where they’re determining how we can re-introduce muskeg into areas that are no longer needed when we close the mine. We have test plots already at site. It’s a fairly detailed closure plan.”