TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – Above zero temperatures have set the 600-km ice road connecting diamond mines in Canada’s Northwest Territories with supplies slightly behind schedule since trucking began at the start of the month, but there is no reason to panic yet, the man in charge of the operation said on Tuesday.
The road services Rio Tinto and Harry Winston’s Diavik mine, De Beers’ Snap Lake operation and BHP Billiton’s Ekati, and the companies build the route each winter, usually operating from February 1 to around the third week of March.
“We are a little bit behind where we were last year at this time. It’s not a reason to panic yet, it’s just a matter of getting some colder and more consistent temperatures,” said Ron Near, winter road operations director.
On Tuesday, the road’s ice thickness stood at 35 inches, compared with the 39 inch thickness it had reached by this time in 2011.
To send fully loaded trucks over the surface, the ice needs to be 41 inches thick.
“Overall, the road is in good shape, and it is handling the traffic we’re putting on it now well,” said Near, the former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who took up the job last year.
The sections where the road traverses land, or portages, had started to soften slightly at the start of the month, when temperatures reached 3 ºC on February 3 and a record high of 3.9 ºC the next day.
This caused the road to temporarily suspend operations for a “couple of partial days, as more of a preventative measure than anything else”, said Near. Around 87% of the road stretches over frozen lakes.
The joint owners of road, Diavik, De Beers and BHP Billiton, had aimed to transport between 63 000 to 65 000 truckloads up to the mines this year, in line with the number for last year, when the cold temperatures led to the thickest ice the route has seen.
On a tonnage basis, trucks winding their way northward at an average speed of 25 km/h are set to haul 207 000 t this year, compared with 239 000 t for 2011.
“This is still a normal year for traffic and tonnage,” Near told Mining Weekly Online, pointing out that the numbers fluctuate from year to year as the mining companies’ needs for supplies such as cement, fuel and tires change.
While last year was a good one for the operation, 2010 saw record high temperatures for Canada, and the road only managed to carry 121 000 t in 3 406 loads.
Rio Tinto will also be sending four wind turbine towers up the route this year, Northern News Services said in November.
While it is still early days, and much depends on the weather, maximum temperatures colder than -10 ºC over the past week, and Environment Canada forecasting the mercury to remain below that level at least until February 20 bodes well for ice thicknesses and the road, which featured on the History Channel’s series Ice Road Truckers.