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Gahcho Kué: a new mine among the big hares

Tony Guthrie

Out on the Canadian tundra where temperatures can drop to minus 40 or below, we are constructing a mine that will uncover a whole new supply of diamonds.

It will be De Beers’ largest diamond mine in Canada and will enhance our 20-year history in the region. I have more than 35 years of experience in mining, and this is one of the most exciting projects I have been involved in – and the first one for me that has to do with hares.

The new mine, Gahcho Kué, is located at Kennady Lake, about 280km north east of Yellowknife and 80km south east of our De Beers Snap Lake Mine in the Northwest Territories.

De Beers has entered a joint venture with Mountain Province Diamonds (MPV) to build the open pit mine. Our stake is 51% and our share of the investment is approximately half a billion US dollars.

It all began in 1995 when MPV discovered the first kimberlite deposit, known as 5034. Three other deposits were discovered by De Beers Exploration two years later, with two of them, the Hearne and Tuzo kimberlites, having excellent economic potential. Extensive drilling and analysis followed and environmental permits were sought and granted for 5034, Hearne and Tuzo.

Full construction began this past winter and the mine is scheduled to begin operations in the second half of 2016. Production is expected to last 13 years and average 54 million carats (on a 100% basis).

I assumed the CEO role in Canada in 2011, having just overseen De Beers Marine activities off the coast of Namibia. Despite the contrasting mining conditions of the Canadian Arctic, the ocean and the southern Africa desert, there were a number of similarities related to the remote mining that takes place in these locations.


Like all of the mines I have overseen in my career, zero harm is my top priority. When the mine is located in a remote region hundreds of kilometres from the nearest hospital, it must also be the top priority for every employee, contractor and visitor to the site.

My Gahcho Kué team, led by Allan Rodel, is operating to the highest safety standards. I want all 700 people employed in the construction of the mine, and the 400 who will operate it, to go home safely at the end of every shift. Last year, there was only one lost time incident – but that was one too many.

Allan, his team and the De Beers support functions in Canada have covered much ground since 2011, finalising engineering, environmental permit applications and pre-construction planning to ensure materials would be ready to travel on the seasonal ice road once final approvals had been received.

These ice roads are built under extreme conditions and time pressures. Intense cold is needed before the winter snow, allowing the frost to penetrate deep into the ground to delay the thaw. Then we use the rivers to flood the roads and let them freeze. The ice is more than 40 inches thick, which is just as well given that the trucks and trailers heading to and from the site can weigh around 55,000kg.

We have been building an ice road to Gahcho Kué since 1999, as we have been doing for many years for our other two mines, Snap Lake and Victor. This road to Gahcho Kué is a 120km spur from the Snap Lake road. Working with our contractor partners in 2015, we constructed and executed our first major ice road campaign to accommodate the beginning of full mine construction. About 2,500 loads – fuel, construction supplies, mining equipment and other materials – were delivered along the road.

De Beers is part of the Tibbitt-to-Contowyto Winter Road Joint Venture that builds the main North West Territories ice roads to the diamond mines and pays a share of the cost. But we are solely responsible for paying the cost of building and maintaining the Gahcho Kué spur road.

It’s an investment in our mines and in the local communities, who also take advantage of the roads to stock up their supplies.


Our investment is not only financial but social too.

Just as much thought has gone into the environmental issues as the technical ones. How our mining affects the communities and areas around our mines is central to our thinking. It’s the same at all our operations in southern Africa too.

To access the kimberlite deposits, we will lower the water level in part of Kennady Lake, one of thousands of small lakes in the region. Some sections will be partitioned off and drained to reach the kimberlite by building a series of dykes, ditches, berms and ponds. But, as the water level is lowered, we will pump in clean water to another watershed north of the lake.

In 2014, we carried out the first phase of a fish recovery programme with our community partners. As the water levels were lowered in the sectioned-off part of the lake, 20 community members worked with our De Beers team to catch about 80% of the large bodied fish in those sections.

The result was more than 3,400 kilos of fish distributed to the local communities. The final phase of the programme will be carried out this summer once the ice has left the lake.

It is important we build long-term relationships with neighbouring communities and are using local companies and employing local people wherever possible. This commitment to creating local economic opportunities can enhance business and community development, provide lifelong skills and strengthen the local economy.

The communities were there before we arrived and will be there long after the diamonds have been extracted. So maximising the value of each diamond brings benefits for everyone involved.

And the ‘big hares’? That’s what Gahcho Kué means in Chipewyan, the language of the local people. I’ve already seen a few and look forward to seeing many more in the coming years.

Tony Guthrie
Chief Executive Officer, De Beers – Mining Canada

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