By Glenn Hicks
Rio Tinto says it’s too early to speculate on the long term viability of a proposed diamond project in the Forte à la Corne forest 60 kilometres east of Prince Albert.
The company also stressed it’s too early to say what benefit or revenue-sharing arrangements may be possible with local Indigenous groups.
The mining giant is now ramping up its community engagement ahead of large-scale exploration work for what the company labelled Project Falcon starting in the spring.
After decades of talk and hope around the region, it appears the gears are starting to grind on a project that has the potential to provide 700 jobs and generate big revenue for the provincial coffers if it moves into full scale operation. The province confirmed the project’s environmental assessment approval in October.
Rio Tinto general manager of exploration in North America Mark Tait spoke to paNOW as they await the winter thaw before proceeding with a series of 10 huge sample holes at the Star-Orion South site.
While stressing it was still early days, Tait said the company sees an opportunity.
“What I can point to is that we are certainly committed to the first phase of work, which is a significant investment, and we wouldn’t be doing that if we didn’t see potential in the project,” he said.
This initial exploration phase is an $18 million investment that will include the trench-cutting sampling work, and an on-site processing plant among other activities. That will mean jobs through the company’s regular contractors in both heavy machinery opportunities and the running of the work camp such as catering.
The company has a deal with the property owners Star Diamond to spend up to $80 million on the life of the project over a multi-phase approach that could see them acquire a 60 per cent stake in the venture. The mine could operate for over 30 years and extract billions of dollars in diamonds, according to previous initial analyses.
Could Indigenous groups see benefit arrangements?
The James Smith Cree Nation (JSCN), whose land is adjacent to the proposed mine, has rejected the project at it stands. Members state the damage caused to the forest by mining operations would be far greater than what was initially portrayed and there would be “significant unmitigated impacts.”
The First Nation said it wanted real benefits from the project such as revenue-sharing.
Tait said it was too early to say what a future mine site might look like and how the mining would impact environmental values.
“We’re focused on exploring and evaluating the ore body,” Tait said. “We’re a long way from determining what a mine plan and broader impact on the project area might look like. We’re still in a stage where we don’t have any ownership of the project for us to speculate around what future IBA (Impact and Benefits Agreement) or revenue-sharing arrangements would look like, it’s too early for us to say.”
Tait did stress Rio Tinto worked with other Indigenous groups globally but said it was too early to go into specifics on what could or couldn’t happen at Project Falcon. The provincial government has already made it clear they do not enter into such arrangements on proposals like this.
JSCN has previously stated its confidence in Rio Tinto’s involvement because of their “maturity” in social and environmental responsibility.
Tait said they had had various meetings with local organizations and groups including one-on-one time with the JSCN and the Métis Nation. He said members of the First Nation went on a tour of the exploration site and the company was well aware of what the project meant for the local environment.
“Our exploration activities are conducted globally in both an environmentally and socially responsible manner,” he said. “We engage with communities right up front. They can come and see what we’re doing, understand what the work looks like, and how it may or may not impact on the broader environment.”
Tait added they can demonstrate when they finish their activities that they “make a significant effort to reclaim those areas to the standards required.”
Advisory committee to communicate timely information as project progresses
With a ramping-up of activities in the coming months, Tait couldn’t say how many jobs would become available, but said further outreach with communities and open houses would be scheduled.
He encouraged anyone with questions, comments or feedback to contact their local member of the Diamond Development Advisory Committee (DDAC), which has representation from many local community groups. People can also contact cp Julia Ewing, a community relations consultant at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rio Tinto said the committee was there so they could take local interests into account, including opportunities for local employment and procurement.