by Mark Sproxton
Northern News Services
NNSL (NOV 04/96) -The $900-million BHP Diamond mine project has received the most important green light in the approval process.
And despite some concerns still held by at least one environmental watchdog group, actual mine construction could begin as early as April, next year.
"As far as the federal government is concerned, the BHP project can go ahead subject to the normal regulatory process," Ron Irwin, minister of Indian and Northern affairs, said Friday in the Great Hall of the legislature building.
Ottawa gave its conditional approval to the project Aug. 8, subject to "significant progress" on impact benefit agreements and a socio-economic and environmental agreement.
The green light follows completion of the majority of those agreements.
Now BHP must receive its water licence and land-use permit before forging ahead full-steam with Canada's first diamond mine.
Irwin's announcement was applauded by BHP and aboriginal leaders representing the Dogrib Nation, Yellowknives, Lutselk'e First Nation, Metis Nation, Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the territorial government.
"I'm happy to be part of the ceremony," said Dogrib Grand Chief Joe Rabesca. "For the first time in the North, we were involved."
For the Yellowknives First Nation, support for the project shows the leadership is willing to become more pro-active on issues concerning development, said Chief Darrell Beaulieu.
"We have to realize we're moving into the 21st century," he said. "The leaders have to say we're going to take this as tool and strengthen our culture."
BHP has said it will eventually hire 72 per cent of its workforce from the North and is committed to purchasing up to 70 per cent of its goods and services from Northern businesses.
While the majority of 200 or so people who attended the ceremony were pleased with the announcement, some still had concerns about the project.
"We're pleased there has been progress made on the environmental agreement, but there are still three issues outstanding," said Kevin O'Reilly, research director with the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.
The fact there are still land-claim issues outstanding and BHP's reluctance to say where or how they are going to market their diamonds needs to be examined, he said.
"Another outstanding issue is the commitment and capability of the government of regulating and managing development in the North," O'Reilly said.
"The government had to sign special agreements to properly manage the project. It shows our laws are not up to snuff."
On the project site at Lac de Gras, about 300 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, construction crews are currently building an accommodation facility large enough to house about 800 full-time workers.
When the project is complete around next April, full construction on the site can begin. Jim Excell, BHP Diamond's project manager, said the company should be in production by the second half of 1998.
Currently there are 217 people working on-site. Once the accommodation facility is complete, more workers will be hired for the project.
The initial bulk of the workers will be hired by contractors during construction, while BHP will begin to hire more and more employees about 18 months into the construction phase.
To date BHP has spent about $200 million on the project. It expects to spend about $30 million a month for the next 20 months on the project, Excell said.
Also at the legislature, leaders signed an implementation protocol for the environmental agreement that has been reached on the project.