November 2008

Remote possibilities

By E. Moore

“He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end.” ~ Harry Emerson Fosdick

De Beers Canada’s Victor operation in northern Ontario has no roadway linking it to the outside world; the closest one is 350 kilometres away. Even the neighbouring Attawapiskat First Nation, just 90 kilometres away, is only accessible via winter road between February and March. During that time, this ice road connects with another that runs to Moosonee, 240 kilometres to the south.

It is within the context of this logistical game — part “beat the clock” and part “connect the dots” — that all heavy equipment, fuel, construction material and bulk consumable supplies have to be moved to the Victor site. For the rest of the year, all personnel, perishables and supplies to the new open-pit diamond project must enter and depart by air.

Still, this did not deter De Beers Canada from investing $1.022 billion to develop one of 16 diamondiferous kimberlite pipes discovered on its property. The Victor kimberlite — actually two pipes that coalesce at the surface — has a surface area of 15 hectares. A 2003 feasibility study predicted an annual processing throughput of 2.5 million tonnes of kimberlite, yielding 600,000 carats annually. Tom Ormsby, the project’s manager of Public and Corporate Affairs, said that the company set ambitious targets and tackled them aggressively; an approach that he claims has paid off. The ramp-up, which was originally forecast for October 2008, was brought forward to January of that year. It meant some long hours for managers and, as Ormsby acknowledges, large dividends as well.

A logistical challenge

The planning process for the Victor project was largely shaped by its location. “We had to build the entire infrastructure ourselves,” explained Ormsby. “There was nothing up there at all.” The company spent 2006 building power lines, a power station, processing facilities, a limestone quarry, 15 kilometres of roads and a landing strip for the aircraft that would provide sole transportation for 10 to 11 months of the year. It even redirected a creek that ran dangerously close to the open pit location to ensure fish habitat would be maintained.

“It was a logistical miracle that we were even able to do it,” exclaimed Ormsby. “Especially because it meant planning two, sometimes three, years in advance. For example, if you need a piece of equipment that you estimate will take a year to build and year to ship, then you have got to begin planning for it three years in advance. Even something as basic as having enough lube — you’ve got make sure to have it up, ordered, in place and ready to go.”

Chain reaction

The Victor project had a very small window in which to move much of its construction material, which it did on 100-tonne trucks. “Essentially you get maybe six weeks of road for heavy loads,” Ormsby explained. “Some years you might only get four. You have to know how you’re going to move these things up and stage them accordingly. That means prioritizing. If something goes wrong — let’s say you have a spare part that is generally further back in your priority chain but becomes critical because perhaps you blew something out — you have to be able to access that component and get it to the front of the chain as quickly as possible.”

At the peak of construction, 2,108 truckloads were moved in six weeks. “Essentially, that meant a truck every 15 minutes,” Ormsby calculated. “Thank goodness that has eased off now that we are through the construction phase. Having said that, we still move approximately 600 to 700 loads a year, and another 215 in fuel.”

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