Lots of work ahead for Rio Tinto

Attendees take a look at a series of exhibits during the Rio Tinto Open House on Wednesday at the Coronet Hotel. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

Representatives from Rio Tinto were preaching patience as Prince Albert residents gathered at the company’s open house for an in depth look at the Star—Orion South Diamond Project.

More than 200 people gathered at the Coronet Hotel Wednesday night to view exploration project exhibits. Exploration is still in the early stages, however, and although the public was eager to hear how quickly a new diamond mine could open, Rio Tinto says it’s still too early to speculate.

“The timeline is the million dollar question, and probably the question that I’ve been asked the most this evening,” project manager Gary Hodgkinson said. “I would be remiss to put numbers to that. I really don’t want to do that because we’re still at a very early stage, and as soon as you throw out a number there it becomes concrete in many peoples’ minds, and I don’t know if we’d be able to deliver that.”

So far, Rio Tinto has completed a 90-person work camp and drilled 10 holes at the Orion South site, with plans to drill another 20 at the Star site located a little further south. Both projects sit in the Fort à la Corne Forest east of Prince Albert.

Exploration crews are looking for kimberlite samples to help determine the viability of the project. Kimberlites are a type of volcanic rock that can sometimes contain diamonds, and the size, grade and depth of the kimberlites in Fort à la Corne Forest are adding some difficulties to the task.

“It’s technically quite challenging,” said Hodgkinson, who has also overseen exploration projects in West Africa, Central Asia and Eastern Europe. “The diamond grades are low and therefore you have to take a lot of samples to get confidence in the grade and the grade variability across these kimberlites. There’s a lot of work that we have to do just to get to the point where we believe that this is possibly going to be an economic deposit.”

The true economic potential of this site is still unknown. Hodgkinson said he’d love to be able to tell people there are plenty of jobs on the horizon, but at this point he can’t say for sure. What he can say is that there is potential, and even if a mine doesn’t open up, there will still be benefits for businesses like sub-contractors who supply a variety of services.

Environmental damage and communication with local communities were the other major concerns during the open house. Hodgkinson said it’s vital to build trust with residents in Prince Albert and nearby Indigenous communities. He also said he understands that trust won’t happen overnight, but instead needs to be built over a period of time.

As for the environmental concerns, the company has hired an environmental consultant to advise them on positioning on access trails, pumping locations and other issues. Pamphlets handed out at the open house stressed that the project was designed to avoid run-off, which would protect the quality of nearby surface water.

Because the main sites are located in a forest, Hodgkinson said it’s impossible to avoid affecting the environment in some way. Their goal is to make sure they do only what is necessary, while also creating a plan for restoring the site to its natural state.

“We want to take out as few trees as possible, but as many as necessary,” he said. “There’s no doubt that in trying to take a project into development, you are going to have an impact on the environment. You cannot avoid that. What we have to do is be able to demonstrate that that’s the minimum impact that we can have and that we have rehabilitation plans in place.”

Mayor Greg Dionne was one of several civic officials who showed up to the open house. Dionne had expressed support for the project at the State of the City address in January, and his support was still strong following Wednesday’s gathering. However, like Rio Tinto, Dionne was preaching patience to local residents.

“Everybody wants to know the answer today. Yes or no, is it going to happen?” Dionne said during an interview on Thursday. “But, they’re still about two years of research out.”

Cameco/Uranerz made the initial discovery at what is now the Star—Orion South Diamond Project back in the 1980s. In 2011, Star Diamond Corp. completed a feasibility study, with the federal government approving a project Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) three years later.

In 2017, Rio Tinto signed an Option and Joint Venture agreement with Star Diamond. The provincial government approved another EIS in 2018.

Correction: the site of the proposed diamond mine is east of Prince Albert, not west as this article originally claimed. The Daily Herald apologizes for any confusion.