Before the Victor Mine even had permits to operate, De Beers was working on its closure plan.
Today, Ontario's first diamond mine — located in a remote area of the James Bay lowlands west of Attawapiskat First Nation — fewer than 100 people remain on-site. That's far fewer than the 500 employees and contractors who were there during the height of the mine's operations, said De Beers' head of corporate affairs, Erik Madsen.
Madsen was the guest speaker at the Timmins Chamber of Commerce's State of Mining event on May 24. He talked about the mine's operations, the work left to be done on-site and the future of De Beers in the James Bay area.
The Victor Mine was active from 2008 to 2019, with the last truck leaving the open pit in May of that year.
“By the end of this summer, active closure at Victor will be complete. That means all the buildings are gone, open pit’s now a lake, and the site is being fully rehabilitated,” he said.
The first phase of the closure started in 2019. It saw the demolition of the infrastructure — including the processing plant that recovered nearly nine million carats of diamonds.
In early 2021, the second phase of the work was awarded.
Year-round, Madsen said there has been work to cap facilities, build water drainage channels and collection ponds, prepare new fish habitat and seed the site.
“Most of the 1.4 million trees that you see are being planted were planted by teams, by hand and by tree planters. We also tried … some new innovative techniques along the way, like seeding hundreds of hectares using a specialized agricultural drone or deploying artificial wetlands — basically rafts the size of sheet plywood stocked with aquatic plants,” he said.
Satellites are also being testing to monitor plant growth.
By this summer, Madsen expects a decision will be made on how to haul out the remaining items.
Small haul trucks — known as wiggle wagons — and equipment such as backhoes, bulldozers and graders are among what's left.
“So equipment that’s really going to be used the next three months in the final contouring of earthworks to make everything look nice and pretty and set up for a proper spring erosion and all that as part of the closure. That equipment will be lined up and it will have to be taken apart because it has to meet the weight restrictions on the ice road to haul them out. There is a possibility we could fly them out,” he said.
While the items can be broken down small enough to be flown out on a Hercules aircraft, Madsen said they're leaning towards using the winter road again.
“All that will be left there is a 16- to 20-person monitoring camp and it will be a tent camp,” he said.
The monitoring will be done multiple times a year until at least 2039.
Over the past two years, the winter road has been used to remove material. This past winter, he said 230 loads were taken out.
Through a partnership between Attawapiskat Enterprises and Priestly Demolition, Madsen said the hope is that material will be sold and the funds will be used to support community development projects.
Many of the items and even vehicles from the site have been donated.
The airport rescue truck went to Moosonee and the pumper truck was donated to the Attawapiskat Fire Department, said Madsen.
“Over the past two years, we have provided empty shipping containers, tools, tool chests, televisions, fuel trucks, winter road construction and maintenance equipment, and much, much more. It’s amazing how these small things can make a difference,” he said.
“We are also going to hold the mineral rights for about 15 other diamond-bearing kimberlite pipes that we have very close by. None are as good as Victor, but technically technology and new mining techniques may open up the opportunity for us to return again,” said Madsen.
While all of the infrastructure has been removed, the company is designing smart mine sites.
“The whole thing is modular, like Lego blocks; you just slap it together and you take it apart. Then you don’t have to worry about the demolition of that big plant,” he said.
Madsen said that could be tested in South Africa next year, noting that you don't want to take a plant like that and throw it in the high Arctic.