A mug full of diamonds: A reporter's notebook from the Victor mine
Only way to get to Ontario's only diamond mine, 1,100 km due north of Toronto, is by plane
"It's one of the most beautiful places up here. You can see rock islands. You can see moose," says Terry Ternes, environmental manager at Ontario's only diamond mine, located in the James Bay lowlands.
"The Attawapiskat River is gorgeous in the summer ime. Just majestic," Ternes adds.
Ternes is in charge of reclaiming the land when the De Beers mine closes in four years. His work includes collecting seeds and cones from area trees to replant. His team is also tracking caribou that migrate around the region.
"I'm a farm boy from Saskatchewan. I farm. This is no different," Ternes says. "When we leave here, this land is going to be in the same shape as we found it."
Ontario environmental commissioner Gord Miller says De Beers has the best data on caribou in Northern Ontario. The company has been monitoring the herds for several years and is providing good baseline biological data.
It tracked one collared female all the way to the Manitoba border and back.
In late March, De Beers Canada agreed to host me at the Victor mine. It's a rare opportunity. I was given the broadest access of any journalist to date.
Only one way in
The only way to get to the remote mine, 1,100 kilometres due north of Toronto, is by plane.
I got myself to Timmins, Ont., and then boarded a charter Air Creebec flight to the mine site. About 1½ hours later, we landed.
Everything up here is precise and calculated. A security check for all visitors and employees on the way in. The way the company collects and sorts every scrap of garbage. The razor-sharp lines in the open pit mine.
The chocolate milk and soft ice cream are the biggest hits at the cafeteria.- Tom Ormsby, De Beers VP
Because it is fly-in only mine, the company builds an ice road to bring in the next year's supplies by land. It's cheaper than flying. For nearly 40 days starting in February, trucks make the 10-hour trip from Moosonee to the Victor mine.
"We have about 450 cargo loads, 220 fuel tankers," says Tom Ormsby, vice-president of corporate and external affairs. "We go through 16 million litres of diesel over the year, so we have to have enough to top up our tanks. We also think of all the predictable things that may need replacing: dishes, pots and pans, bed clothes. We try to have that ordered once a year."
Temperatures can plunge to –40 C and conditions can be rough for the people working at the mine, which operates 24/7. Miners work 12-hour shifts, for two weeks straight, before flying home for a break. To compensate, De Beers provides a full-size gym where badminton has become a hit, workout rooms, and an impressive range of food.
A First Nations catering company from nearby Attawapiskat serves up a stunning, variety of meals. The dinner entrees when I visited included grilled lamb, smelts and chicken souvlaki. The night before? Steak and scallops. There is a baker on site and always a table full of desserts.
Fingerprint security ID
"The chocolate milk and the soft ice cream are the biggest hits!" jokes Ormsby. Sure enough, I did see several burly mine workers enjoying a creamy spiral-topped cone.
"I use my fingerprints for my ID while I'm here," Ormsby says. "It's quite Star Trek. Cool stuff going on. I don't understand half of it."
No one touches the diamonds. Before polishing, they look like chunks of salt. The entire mine operation is hands off, including an automated arm that puts the day's yield into a vault.
I saw a few cameras mounted in corners during my 24-hour visit, but according to Ormsby there are hundreds all around the property.
Standing in the diamond pit made me feel like I was in an ancient amphitheatre. Less than a kilometre wide, we watched convoys of trucks circling down and back up, piled high with rock. They work 24 hours a day.
"A good shift for the crusher is 10,000 tonnes per day," says superintendent Gerry Dubien. A veteran of gold mines, he says the Victor diamond mine is the cleanest he's ever seen.
All that tonnage of rock, crushed and washed. Each day, the prize is a cup full of rough diamonds about the size of a Tim Hortons travel mug.