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Excitement brewing over prospect of diamond mine (2/02)

By Ian Ross News that De Beers Canada Corp.

By Ian Ross

News that De Beers Canada Corp. is pushing ahead on its Victor diamond project in the James Bay lowlands by undertaking a pre-feasibility study this winter is generating excitement among the area's Aboriginal population because of the promise of much-needed new jobs.

With the possibility of as many as 400 mining jobs being created, DeBeers officials have advised the community to plan ahead in working with them to identify types of employment and training required.

"They're talking about training people, the possibility of a training facility here and working on something with the Ministry of Education about what kinds of jobs are being created," says Margaret Okimaw, an interim liaison co-ordinator between the Attawapiskat First Nation and DeBeers.

Though some Native elders have reservations about their traditional ways being disturbed by mining exploration, Okimaw says in a community suffering from an 85 per cent unemployment rate, the influx of new revenue from exploration activity has raised hopes among the area's young people who are looking to secure long-term, well-paying jobs.

Few local people collect a regular pay cheque, she says, and the work available is primarily in seasonal community projects such as building school portables or new stores.

Since DeBeers signed a memorandum of understanding with the Attawapiskat First Nation in 1999, about 80 locals have found employment at the Victor site, working as drill helpers, carpenters, cooks and security.

"Let's face it. It's the modern world, and we've been living in the Dark Ages and I just want what's best for my family," Okimaw says.

A DeBeers spokesperson attempted to temper some of the excitement within the community of 2,600, saying the final decision on whether a mine will be developed is still years away.

Jocelyn Fraser, a senior adviser of public affairs, says the Victor project still has good potential, but the South African diamond mining giant still has pressing concerns over water management and development costs on site.

"We're a long way away from the point where we could make a decision whether to move forward (with a mine) or not," Fraser says.

The site is located in a muskeg area about 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat on the James Bay coast.

A desktop feasibility study prepared by a DeBeers mining team with the help of Bechtel Group Inc., a San Francisco engineering firm, identified some significant technical issues around the operation an open pit mine in this remote area.

Among their concerns is how groundwater might seep in as the pit goes deeper. But the study also identified the need for more detailed geophysical and delineation work around the site.

The pre-feasibility study, which should last 12 months, will address access issues such as building an all-weather road from Attawapiskat and whether power should be produced at Victor or delivered by transmission lines from the village.

"It's these kinds of trade-offs that need to be (looked at), as well as the geotechnical work that needs to be done out there," says Fraser.

Following the pre-feasibility study, a final feasibility study could last 12 to 18 months, after which a mine would be constructed.

"We're at least two to two-and-a-half years away from making a decision," Fraser says. Should a mine be developed, it would be DeBeers' first diamond mine outside of the Northwest Territories and would have a 10 to 15 year life span.

DeBeers is now undergoing the permit process to build its first mine in Canada at Snap Lake, about 220 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife.

The Victor deposit is comprised of 18 kimberlite pipes, 16 of which DeBeers says are diamond-bearing. Kimberlite is a rare igneous rock often associated with host diamonds.

Fraser says DeBeers has concentrated its efforts on two pipes which merge near the surface in a 17-hectare area.

"We still need to figure out how the diamonds are distributed throughout the pipe and get a better feel of how to potentially mine there," Fraser says.

As to whether the grade is as good as in the Northwest Territories, Fraser says some exploration work around small surface trenches on the property look promising enough to warrant further study.

"Even if everything went smoothly at every step of the way and the approvals went forward, we'd be unlikely to have a mine operating up there before 2007."

Fraser says their exploration efforts may lead to further economic spinoffs for communities right across the north, including regional centres like Timmins.

Equipment and manpower would come from a variety of different areas, he adds.

"We want to broaden the impact to benefit the region as a whole," Fraser says.