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All-season road to N.W.T. mines could extend ice road use by a month

The man in charge of building and maintaining the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road north of Yellowknife says turning the first 150 kilometres of the 400 kilometre ice road into an all-weather road could help prevent early closures.

Converting first 150 km of ice road to all-weather road could help prevent early closures

Workers flood the ice on the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road in the Northwest Territories. (Courtesy Tibbit to Contwoyto Winter Road Joint Venture)

The man in charge of building and maintaining the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road north of Yellowknife says turning the first 150 kilometres of the ice road into an all-weather road could potentially increase the operating season of the ice road by a month.

Yesterday N.W.T. Premier Bob McLeod told a group of territorial and federal politicians in Ottawa that his government is studying the feasibility of an all-weather road into the Slave Geologic Province, the mineral-rich area of N.W.T. that is host to three operating diamond mines, the future GahchoKue diamond mine and several other diamond prospects.

"This project would extend the life of the NWT’s diamond mines and make new exploration and development projects in this mineral-rich region more feasible," said McLeod.

Ron Near, who runs the ice road for a joint venture of diamond mine owners, says the section being studied by the territorial government — from the end of the Ingraham Trail in Yellowknife to the first rest stop on the ice road, at Lockhart Lake — is ripe for transformation.

The road is 400 kilometres long. The section being studied is around the area that several companies are exploring for diamonds near the GahckoKue diamond project.

Near says turning it into an all-season road could also reduce the risk of the ice road closing due to warm temperatures, as it famously did in 2006.

Near says that's because the section being studied is host to many portages and lakes that can, during warmer years, leave the road open to early closures.

"Some of these lakes are challenging because they're warmer than lakes in the higher portion of the road and harder to build ice on and, more importantly, harder to maintain ice on later in the season," said Near. 

Near says it costs between $16 million dollars and $20 million dollars a year to build and maintain the road. Dominion Diamond Corporation, Rio Tinto and De Beers share the cost. 

"Certainly the joint venture is interested in any option that would reduce the risk of a situation like we had in 2006, where the road was closed early because of warmer conditions."

An all-weather road up to the Lockhart camp could potentially extend the seasonal life of the entire ice road to three months from two months, Near added.

About 9,500 trucks are headed for the road this year, the second highest number ever. Near credits the increase to construction at Gahcho Kue. 

The ice road is scheduled to open to all trucks on Sunday. 

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