Canadian diamond mines see ice road opening on time

Tue Jan 15, 2008 2:20pm EST
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By Cameron French

TORONTO (Reuters) - A 600 km (370 mile) ice road that is key to resupplying Canada's Arctic diamond mines is on schedule to open around the end of the month, and should enjoy lighter loads this year than last, according to the route's operator.

The temporary highway, on which columns of transport trucks traverse frozen lakes during a typical two-month season, currently has ice about 50 cm (20 inches) thick in its southern sections, according to Tom Hoefer of Diavik Diamond Mines, which along with BHP Billiton (BHP.AX: Quote) operates the road.

"We've got our fingers crossed it will be the end of January. If you look at historical openings, it's been anywhere (around the) end of January, early February," said Hoefer.

Starting in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories, the road snakes north and east into the neighboring Arctic territory pf Nunavut, providing the only ground supply route for four diamond mines, including Diavik, which is owned by Rio Tinto (RIO.AX: Quote) and Harry Winston HW.TO.

It also serves BHP Billiton's Ekati mine, Tahera Diamond's TAH.TO Jericho mine and De Beers Canada's Snap Lake mine.

The road has been around for more than 20 years, originally serving the now defunct Lupin gold mine in Nunavut, but it has grown in importance over the past decade as Canada's young diamond industry has grown.

But as the loads have increased, road operators have had to also deal with warmer winters.

Following a nearly disastrous 2006, when mild temperatures closed the road early, they have taken steps to ensure an earlier opening and a smoother season.   Continued...