November 2008

New frosty frontiers

The challenges of mining in Canada’s territories

By D. Zlotnikov

An inuksuk-like monument in the form of a person is called an inunnquaq. Inuksuit are not only beautiful and powerful symbols of Inuit culture, they also serve a practical purpose, serving as guides and markers in the barren and often snow-covered landscape.

The Canadian territories are not exactly the easiest place in which to live and work, especially if you are a mine operator. Harsh climates, limited infrastructure and a very fragile environment are all challenges to be overcome. But as demand for minerals continues to grow, both new and established operators are taking a more active interest in the region. The unique challenges of the region must be acknowledged and addressed if one is to have a successful project. A number of junior and senior companies operating in the three territories have shared their insights and experiences, which are offered below.

The cold hard facts

The most obvious and inescapable challenge when it comes to mining in the territories is the weather. The winter temperatures tend to see the far side of minus 40 degrees Celsius on a regular basis, pushing equipment and workers to the edge of their tolerances. Steel can become brittle, gas can silently and insidiously leak out of shock absorbers, and cabin fever can reach epidemic proportions during extended whiteouts. When a piece of equipment encounters a “small” problem at minus 40 degrees, it’s no longer a small problem. “You never want a machine to shut down on you in the North during the winter,” said Mervyn Hempenstall, CEO and president of Nuna Logistics. Repairs are problematic, to say the least, when technicians must battle the cold as well as a recalcitrant truck. And this is before the full force of the northern winter makes itself felt.

The weather can place very serious restrictions on a smaller exploration program without the resources to weatherproof facilities and infrastructure, said Brooke Clements, president of Peregrine Diamonds, which has a number of exploration projects on Baffin Island. “It is often necessary to work in the winter,” he explained. “Much of the North is covered by swamps and lakes, and certain areas can only be surveyed and drilled under frozen conditions. To do this, you need to establish proper infrastructure. In the early stages of exploration, projects try to do all or most of their work in the Far North from June to some time in September. As a project advances, you need to extend your time in the field to the winter months.”

However, even in the summer, weather can cause problems. “Often during those months, you have quite a few days when the helicopter can’t fly because the fog is in or there’s freezing rain or something of that type,” said Clements. When that helicopter is being used by a company for an airborne geophysical survey, losing a flight day out of an already short work season is an unwelcome event.

When it is a plane transporting people, it can have even more severe consequences, since the majority of operations in the North are fly-in/fly-out. “Low-lying clouds and fog can mean that planes are unable to deliver fresh crews to the site and take people going off rotation back home,” said Hempenstall. But ultimately, the weather is a reality of operating in the North. “It is not something you can manage,” he continued, “but you just have to manage.”

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