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Mining

Ekati hires company to build underwater diamond crawler


The NWT’s Ekati mine is partnering with a Dutch company to build a giant underwater diamond crawler that could extend the mine’s life.

Ekati owner Arctic Canadian says more diamond-containing kimberlite can be economically extracted from old pits by flooding them and sending in these machines.

A trial is expected at Ekati’s Lynx pit in the summer of 2024, with a target of extracting 150,000 tons of ore.

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“Many other mining solutions were evaluated over the past 15-20 years, but the mining crawler is the technological breakthrough for kimberlite diamond mining we were looking for,” said Jon Carlson, Arctic Canadian’s head of exploration and project development, in a Wednesday press release.

A comparison published by Arctic of an underwater crawler, left, versus other large mining vehicles.

“With this solution, we are taking the next step in the future of diamond-bearing kimberlite mining.”

The company that will build the crawler is IHC Mining, a division of Dutch shipbuilding firm Royal IHC, which says it has had a relationship with Ekati since 2018.

A large platform – beneath which the crawler would be tethered – is already under construction.

In a presentation last year, Arctic Canadian said underwater remote mining – flooding old pits, then sending in crawlers that are operated from elsewhere – was the best way to extend Ekati’s life.

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Conventional mining of Ekati’s newest open pit, Point Lake, is scheduled to keep the mine open from 2023 onward. Eventually, Arctic envisages also mining Point Lake by flooding it and using the underwater crawlers.

“Point Lake will be the last of the conventional mining pits that we do,” Arctic Canadian president Rory Moore said in 2021.

“Once the Point Lake pit is completed, the operation at Ekati will be 100-percent underwater remote mining.”

IHC Mining said on Wednesday the crawlers “could allow the Ekati diamond mine to extend its lifetime by at least 10 years.”

The companies say the underwater option is environmentally preferable because less waste rock is created getting to the kimberlite.

“If we get this technique right, which I’m very confident we will, we’ve got decades of successful mining ahead for Ekati,” Moore said last year.

Crawlers long thought too costly

Keeping Ekati alive in some form for decades to come would represent a welcome boost to the Northwest Territories’ economy.

The NWT relies on diamond mines for much of its wealth but the three operational mines – Ekati, Diavik, and Gahcho Kué – are approaching the end of their lives.

At 2021’s Geoscience Forum, then-boss of Diavik Richard Storrie said that mine would end operations in 2025. Gahcho Kué currently anticipates operation until around 2030, though the mine has one or two options that could extend its life.

Underwater crawlers have their doubters, not least because this kind of proposal has been knocked back and forth for years.

Then-owner of Ekati BHP Billiton evaluated underwater crawlers in 2009 but put further research on hold as the cost was considered prohibitive compared to more conventional options. In 2013, Dominion similarly concluded crawlers were “not suitable as a project at this time.”

Now, Arctic Canadian appears to be backing up last year’s ambitious presentation with investment in the technology itself.

The crawlers’ impact on employment levels at the mine, such as how many people are required compared to conventional forms of mining, is not yet clear.

The first crawler is due to arrive at Ekati in late 2023, ahead of 2024’s trial.

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