If all goes to plan, the Diavik diamond mine – 10 percent of the NWT’s GDP – will be gone before the decade is out. Not just closed, but reclaimed too.
Presenting to Yellowknife city council on Monday, Diavik staff members said the last active mining at the site, which opened 20 years ago, will be in 2026. Closure and reclamation are set to be complete by 2029.
“Our closure phase will be very short,” Amanda Annand, a communities advisor for Diavik’s owner, Rio Tinto, told councillors. “We’ve been doing progressive reclamation over the life of mine. So this isn’t a Giant Mine remediation project. This is a three-year cleanup.”
That means the economic loss to Yellowknife and other communities is happening sooner rather than later. Monday’s presentation set out what Rio Tinto says it’ll do to help the transition.
The headlines are:
an employee retraining program to help people find other work, ideally in the North;
keeping an apprenticeship program going in some form, even once the site closes;
putting “bridge funding” in place for organizations currently part-funded by Diavik;
finding new homes for Diavik’s equipment and vehicles;
developing a monitoring program for the closed mine that involves traditional knowledge; and
helping to bring Yellowknife’s Frame Lake back to life.
The last item involves installing an aerator in Frame Lake, a “dead lake” where fish don’t live and swimming or harvesting plants is considered unsafe. Diavik first set out that plan in 2021.
Annand said aerating the lake was an “opportunity to rehabilitate Frame Lake as opposed to rehabilitating random fish habitat in Lac de Gras that nobody will use,” referring to the lake 300 km northeast of Yellowknife on which the mine is located.
The aeration project has been delayed because the German-made equipment needs Canadian safety approvals before being installed. Annand said the aerator should be in place by September.
“Basically, the aerator will provide oxygen into Frame Lake over the course of the winter so there’s not a die-off, as there normally is every year,” she said, “with the idea that we could bring fish populations back into Frame Lake and kind-of clean up the way the lake looks.”
Lay-offs set to begin
In some respects, there are bigger fish to fry as Diavik closes.
The mine is responsible for 370 Yellowknifers’ jobs, according to its latest figures, and has a total of some 1,200 employees.
Rio Tinto says it is expanding its My Path program, designed to help employees find somewhere to go after Diavik, to include contractors who aren’t directly employed by the company but have been long-term workers at the mine.
People are already preparing to leave – some mining will stop before 2026, so lay-offs will “happen progressively as different pits close,” Annand said, meaning the My Path program is already helping its first cohort of departing staff. (After this article was first published, Rio Tinto clarified that lay-offs were “not happening imminently” but the company was “speaking with employees over the next couple of months as we prepare to ramp up the My Path program, which will be personalized for each participant.”)
Initially, some of those workers were expected to find jobs on the neighbouring Ekati mine’s Jay project, but that proposed expansion ultimately never happened. A smaller-scale expansion, Point Lake, is now going ahead at Ekati and could offset some of Diavik’s job losses, but not as many as Jay might have, Diavik staff said on Monday.
Meanwhile, the mine is contemplating a system of transitional payments to wean NWT non-profits off the half a million dollars or so it provides in annual funding.
Annand and colleague Tara Marchiori said the list of affected non-profits includes the likes of the Yellowknife Women’s Society, Folk on the Rocks, Snowkings’ Winter Festival, the NWT On-The-Land Collaborative, the NWT Literacy Council and the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation.
What happens to the wind turbines?
The mine will also try to offload its old assets if willing new homes can be found.
“We will be doing site tours every year” for prospective buyers, said Annand, noting that the City of Yellowknife has expressed some interest in the mine’s emergency equipment.
“Whenever we’re doing these tours, if there’s infrastructure the city identifies that could be useful to use that would be coming off site, our goal, obviously, is to keep anything that’s useful in the North.”
Diavik has the NWT’s first large-scale wind turbines, a system of four 2.3-megawatt turbines that the mine has previously said saves around $5 million a year in power costs. Where those turbines go once Diavik closes has long been a matter of speculation, but staff now say they may ultimately stay at the mine until the end of their useful lives.
“We’ll rely on them for power for basically as long as possible,” said Annand. “They’re going to stay on site until we’re pretty-much done any operations that will require any type of power.”
Marchiori added: “They will be very close to the end of their life. The work that we’ve done on that has basically indicated that there are better, cheaper options available now than what they are. So they will potentially stay there until they’re no longer useful.”
The mine finished with a request that the city think some more about how Rio Tinto can be helpful before Diavik is gone for good.
“We recognize that with the closure of the three main diamond mines within a 10-year period in the North, that is going to be a huge impact on on northerners, on the City of Yellowknife,” said Annand.
“We are open and hoping to work with the City of Yellowknife on what some of the next steps could be on implementing some of these mitigation strategies and understanding what the city’s priorities are, in terms of regional economic development.”