The use of air transport in mining development started early in Canada. Bush
planes, like the Beaver aircraft, were crucial to the development of gold, silver
and nickel mining in northern Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba.
Air transport enabled people and equipment to
undertake resource exploration and development
in areas that are virtually inaccessible. Roads
and railway lines were eventually built to the
richest of these deposits. But even today,
Canada has the renown of being the largest
single market for helicopter services.
Despite their success, bush planes and helicopters have limitations in both payload and
flight distance. Development of large-scale mines or energy exploitation was only possible in
the southern fringes of the north where rail lines or road links could be built economically.
Many types of cargoes are required for mine development and operations. The main
categories include construction materials, fuel, equipment, machinery, cement, explosives,
camp supplies, food, etc. Fuel is the largest single input requirement that limits northern
development. Supply shortages of some mining provisions may be a nuisance, but a fuel
shortage can be a catastrophe. A mine that is forced to shutdown its concentrator for lack of
fuel may never be re-opened. The camp would face some very significant safety issues without
heat and electricity.
Transporting fuel is costly and
environmentally risky. Typically fuel is
transported in bulk using rail, truck or
barges. Mines that have no railway,
gravel roads or marine access must
operate using ice roads during a short
Known mineral deposits and operating
mines near Yellowknife, NWT is identified
on Map 1. A seasonal ice road serves two
operating mines and a third mine under
re-development. Two of the properties are
diamond mines (Ekati and Diavik) and the
third is a gold property (Lupin).
These mines require approximately 200 million litres of fuel, annually. The years supply of
fuel is trucked over an ice road that operates for a 12-16 week period. In addition to the fuel, a
whole years supply of grinding balls, explosives, plant supplies, non-perishable camp supplies,
etc. must be moved over the 400-kilometer ice road. The transportation cost for fuel is about
$40 million. The total cost for all freight, including building and maintaining the ice road, would
be much higher.
The capacity of the ice roads out of Yellowknife could easily be reached if the season
shortens, one of the mines expands (which is a realistic possibility for Lupin), or another
property tries to connect to the existing road. Adding more lanes over the lakes could extend
capacity, but ultimately, safety concerns would impose an upper limit on traffic.
Transportation Challenges Affecting Mining in the Territories
Diamond and gold mines require large volumes of fuel and other supplies to be trucked in to
their operations, but the monthly output can be carried out by air. This is not the case for base
metal mines (copper, zinc, nickel, etc.) that have much larger volumes of outbound materials to
transport. This means that for economic operations, they have better transportation service. An
example is the undeveloped Izok Lake discovery that is located in central Nunavut. This mineral
deposit is of world-class proportions. The grade of zinc, lead, copper and gold (16.5 million
tones) would have been mined long ago, if it were accessible. This property is owned by a large
publicly traded international mining company (Inmet Mining) would produce 350,000 to
400,000 tons of concentrate annually and employ 250 persons. A pre-feasibility study suggests
that the mine would have a minimum life of 13 years based on known reserves.
Several major mining companies have considered
developing the Izok Lake reserve but all have failed to
overcome the transportation challenges associated with
economically moving mining supplies, principally fuel,
into the mine site and concentrates back out.
Unlike a diamond or gold mine where the finished
product can be brought out in a small airplane on a
weekly basis, base-metal mines have to stockpile their
inventories for 9 to 10 months. In addition to the direct
costs of ice roads, the indirect costs of financing
inventories contribute to the total logistics costs of the
mines. Inmet provided the following comparative costs.
Mining companies have examined many creative solutions to the Izok Lake transportation
dilemma. Considerable study was made of building a deep-water port on the north shore of
the continent at Bathurst Inlet. This port would be the terminus for a 265-kilometer all-
weather road to the mine. The cost of constructing a deep-water port and building the road is
estimated to be $250 million.
In addition to transporting the concentrates to a point where they can be shipped to a
smelter, there is a requirement to haul fuel and supplies into the mine. Also, for an air only
option to be feasible, the aircraft must also be able to transport the equipment and construction
materials to site as part of the facilities construction. An Inmet representative has estimated
that to be competitive with ground transportation, excluding the cost and maintenance of the
road, the airship would have to offer a price of $50/ton.
Isok Lake is only one example of where transportation has prevented a mine from being
developed. The lack of access from mining sites to conventional transportation, such as a port,
is widespread. In an attempt to resolve this issue, the Federal Government and the mining
companies with interests in the area sponsored a $6 million study to consider developing an all-
weather road that would connect with the existing ice roads. In addition to the commercial
aspects of this project, there are important social issues. Who will pay for the road? Do the
economic benefits offset environmental impacts? How will a road affect the aboriginals living in
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