Economy
Environment

Ekati’s Point Lake expansion receives ministerial approval


A new open pit at the NWT’s Ekati diamond mine, designed to keep the mine alive for an extra four years, has received ministerial approval and can now proceed.

Point Lake is expected to be operational from 2023 to 2027, spanning what would otherwise have been a gap between existing projects as they end and other, larger-scale projects that remain in development.

Arctic Canadian Diamond Company, Ekati’s owner, has argued that Point Lake will sustain the mine for that four-year period, allow time to get those remaining projects started, and keep people in work.

Advertisement.

“The Point Lake project provides an essential bridge between the currently active mining operations at Ekati and the longer-term developments that require several years for design, permitting, and construction,” the company told Cabin Radio last year.

Arctic had said any delay to the project would put the whole Ekati mine’s future at risk.

On Thursday, territorial environment minister Shane Thompson gave Point Lake the green light by issuing a letter that approved the company’s water licence for the associated work.

That letter concludes the initial regulatory process that sets the conditions under which mining at Point Lake can take place. The Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board had recommended that the minister approve the project.

In its application to the regulator, Arctic said it would offset some of Point Lake’s environmental impacts by promising to never develop the Jay project, a separate pit that received permitting five years ago but is no longer considered economically viable.

Advertisement.

However, Point Lake comes with environmental liabilities that aren’t fully offset by cancelling Jay.

One of the most prominent concerns is what happens to caribou migration paths through the area, and how waste rock from the open pit will interfere.

“For Dene people, caribou is more important than diamonds, it’s more important than the economy, and certainly more important than the proponent’s ability to make a profit,” said Mike Tollis, speaking on behalf of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, at a public hearing late last year.

“The lack of attention to caribou in this application signifies a lack of understanding of the Dene culture and what’s important to its sustainability.”

Tłı̨chǫ Elders expressed similar concern.

A map shows Point Lake’s location compared to existing Ekati pits to the south and once-proposed Jay to the north.

Bathurst caribou are identified as a species at risk by the NWT government as their numbers are rapidly declining. At the Bathurst herd’s peak in 1986, it contained around 470,000 caribou. By November 2018, there were just 8,200. 

During the application process, Arctic pledged to address the issue through caribou monitoring, ramps on an access road that will allow caribou to cross, investment of $500,000 over three years in research on the Bathurst caribou herd, and support for an on-the-land culture camp. 

The finished licence requires that Arctic design a waste rock storage area that minimizes impact on caribou habitat and uses “traditional knowledge and western science to maximize caribou movement through the Point Lake project area.”

In an April letter to the minister, land and water board chair Mason Mantla concluded that “the activities, land and water use, and waste disposal associated with the project can be completed … while providing for the conservation, development, and utilization of waters in a manner that will provide the optimum benefit for all Canadians and in particular for the residents of the Mackenzie Valley.”

Advertisement.