Since 1915, the Northern Miner weekly newspaper has chronicled Canada’s globally significant mining sector.
BHP executive catalyst for Ekati mine
The unsung hero behind the opening of Canada’s first diamond mine is a modest gentleman who never hesitates to praise the accomplishments of his team and his partners. Yet Hugo Dummett, The Northern Miner’s Man of the Year for 1998, has the unusual distinction of being a catalyst for both the discovery and development of the Ekati diamond mine, which made Canadian mining history when it was officially opened on Oct. 14.
In the early days of the diamond discoveries at Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories, Dummett was the face of BHP Diamonds, the unit of Australian mining giant Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP-N) that today holds a 51% operating interest in Ekati. His faith in the project, in the people working on it, and in the science behind it never wavered, even when skeptics called the project a pipe dream, the people obsessed, and the science fanciful.
Born in Springs, Transvaal, South Africa, Dummett obtained his bachelor of science in 1964 from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He worked as an exploration geologist for Anglo American and other large corporations before emigrating to Australia in 1970, where he joined a small exploration group and pursued post-graduate studies at the University of Queensland. In 1977, he came to the U.S. as a senior geologist for Superior Oil’s minerals division. He joined BHP in 1989 and rose through the ranks to his current post as president and group general manager, exploration.
The scientific sleuthing that led to the discovery of the Lac de Gras kimberlites was a team effort dating back to 1978, when Superior Oil teamed up with Falconbridge Nickel and geologist Charles Fipke’s C.F. Mineral Research to explore for diamonds in southeastern British Columbia.
Dummett was a key player in those early efforts to find a commercial diamond deposit, along with Falconbridge’s Chris Jennings, another South African with a passion for diamonds. Together with Fipke, they first focused their efforts on the Kananaskis Lake region of British Columbia. The impetus for the program was the Geological Survey of Canada’s mapping program, which pinpointed the localities of several kimberlite bodies northeast of Cranbrook.
The field work was Fipke’s responsibility and he relied heavily on sampling of stream sediments to identify indicator minerals, the distinctive and unique family of minerals that are released by kimberlites during weathering. Between 1979 and 1982, the partners found at least 20 pipes, the largest being the Jack diatreme near Golden. Unfortunately, it soon became obvious none had the makings of a mine.
The joint venture subsequently tested numerous kimberlites that were known to contain diamonds, but results were always below what was needed for a commercial mining operation. Fipke and Dummett later remarked that, after a series of disappointments, “the thrill was gone” from finding kimberlites, even those with diamonds. They wanted to find deposits that would sustain a commercially viable mine, and as scientists, they wanted to use techniques that would make the job easier and less expensive than it had been in the past.
Toward that end, Superior and Falconbridge decided to fund a research project with John Gurney, a South African university professor and geochemist who had already done extensive studies on diamond inclusion minerals.
The research program began in 1979, and by 1982, Gurney had established that kimberlitic garnet — namely pyrope garnet — was critical to diamond discovery. Thereafter, Superior and Falconbridge focused their heavy-mineral sampling programs on the discovery of kimberlitic indicator minerals that contained G10 garnets. In this way, they were able to differentiate between diamondiferous and barren kimberlites without drilling.
The Falconbridge-Superior joint venture used G10s to discover pipe GO25 in eastern Botswana. However the Kalahari sand-covered geochemical discovery was put on the back burner in favor of a larger pipe with a strong geophysical signature. De Beers eventually acquired pipe GO25 from Falconbridge and worked on a feasibility study this year in anticipation of full-scale production. However, pipe GO25’s eventual success clinched Dummett’s faith in geochemical sampling methodologies, as well as his determination to use the techniques to advantage in North America.
By this point, the Superior-Falconbridge partners were in the Northwest Territories testing the Mountain diatreme near the Yukon border. It, too, failed to make the grade and Fipke and prospecting partner Stewart Blusson decided to move farther north, near Norman Wells, after hearing that De Beers was running a sampling program in the region.
Superior Oil, which held a controlling interest in Falconbridge Nickel, decided at this time to pull out of exploration in Canada. It assigned to Fipke and Blusson all its assets in the diamond joint venture, including claims near the Mountain diatreme and sample data from work completed by C.F. Minerals crews.
After Superior’s exit, Fipke managed the Northwest Territories program on his own, keeping the project alive from 1983 to 1989 with a shoe-string budget. During those lean years, Fipke’s junior company, Dia Met Minerals (DMM-T), scraped enough funds from faithful investors to sample sites spanning 600 km of the Barren Lands, from near Lac la Marte eastwards to Baker Lake. Using his lab in Kelowna and his training as a geochemist, Fipke learned everything he could about the proprietary exploration methodologies used by the Russians and South Africans to pinpoint diamondiferous kimberlites.
Once all the results of the 1985 program were in, Fipke was convinced that the train of kimberlite minerals pointed to sources near Lac de Gras. But the mining world remained skeptical of Fipke and his arcane theories, and showed little interest in the project.
Dummett, one of a few to keep the faith, tried to help Fipke find a major that might be willing to become a partner — but without success. However, evidence kept mounting that Lac de Gras was indeed the site of a kimberlite field, prompting Fipke to stake claims in the summer of 1989. John Gurney and colleague Rory Moore later confirmed that the presence of G10s in Fipke’s samples indicated diamondiferous kimberlites.
Dummett, one of only a few North Americans to understand the significance of the findings, knew that this might be the long-pursued mother lode. He convinced his skeptical employer, BHP Minerals, to start negotiations with Fipke and Blusson to fund a larger, more aggressive exploration effort aimed at finding and testing the kimberlites in the Lac de Gras region.
This work program began shortly after the agreement was signed in September 1990. Initial work focused on Point Lake, where Fipke’s son had previously spotted chrome diopside (another member of the indicator mineral assemblage) that obviously had not traveled far from its source.
In the fall of 1991, after geophysical work had confirmed a circular conductor under Point Lake, BHP began its drilling program. The crews were elated when, after drilling through 450 ft. of barren rock, the first hole penetrated the kimberlite pipe and stayed in kimberlite for 950 metres.
Subsequent analysis revealed 65 microdiamonds and 16 macrodiamonds in 59 kg of core.
The discovery was a much-needed boon for the moribund Canadian mining industry and sparked one of largest staking rushes in mining history, covering most of the area between Yellowknife and the Arctic coast, and a financing boom on the Vancouver Stock Exchange.
Subsequent work revealed many more kimberlites, including ones with better-quality diamonds than those found at Point Lake. Hugo Dummett enticed geochemist Rory Moore to join the BHP team, while Dia Met also added talent to its exploration group. The exploration partners enjoyed success after success, even after BHP decided it was time to call in the engineers and start drawing up mine plans.
Despite some initial opposition from environmental groups, BHP’s engineering and environmental team carefully and patiently studied all aspects of the project and put forward a project description that drew praise as a model of modern resource development. It is one of the first projects to incorporate traditional knowledge into the mine planning process.
BHP’s engineering team based their mine plans on five separate pipes. Three of the five — Panda, Koala and Fox — are near the processing plant.
Sable and Misery are 17 km and 29 km distant, respectively. Two of the five — Panda and Koala — will be mined using underground techniques after open-pit mining is completed. Other pipes may be mined in future decades. The $700-million Ekati mine is expected to produce 3.5-4.5 million carats of diamonds each year, about 6% by value of world production.
Dummett played an important role in guiding the Ekati project through its early days in other measurable ways. He advocated an open dialogue with local aboriginal groups, believed that northerners should share in the jobs and benefits, and was committed to high environmental standards throughout the exploration and mine development phases of the project. He helped make Ekati a mine of its time. He also guided the teams who discovered the Hope Bay gold deposits in the Northwest Territories and the Caber zinc deposit in Quebec.
Dummett’s role in bringing to fruition the Ekati diamond mine is testimony to his determination, faith in good science, and willingness to support both his own team and everyone else involved in the project. In 1997, he was awarded the William L. Saunders Gold Medal by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration. That same year he received the American Mining Hall of Fame’s Award of Merit.