No. 4, 2011

Oleg Grigorash


JSC Arkhangelskgeoldobycha is preparing to launch industrial development of the V. Grib diamond field

JSC Arkhangelskgeoldobycha, traditionally considered to be the country's oldest

geological exploration enterprise, celebrates its 80th anniversary this autumn. Today, Arkhangelskgeoldobycha, a subsidiary of LUKOIL, is successfully preparing to implement one of the most promising projects in the North-West of Russia - industrial development of the Vladimir Grib diamond field.

First in Europe

Russia currently holds first place in the world in terms of deposits of this valuable raw material, this indicator being directly connected with the appearance of Europe's first diamond-bearing province in Arkhangelsk Region, a land of ice-cold rivers, unmoving lakes and endless forests ranked along the shores of the White Sea.

In terms of diamond reserves, Arkhangelsk Region holds second place in Russia (about 20.6% of the country's total figures). The most promising is the Zimneberezhny diamond-bearing area located in the north of the region. In total, the Arkhangelsk diamond-bearing province includes over 70 kimberlite pipes, the best known being the V. Grib pipe and the Lomonosovskoye deposit.

The first diamond is said to have been found in the north of the European part of Russia back in the 18th century (though it may have been a large quartz crystal rather than a diamond). Even so, the archives state that "... along the rocky bank of the River Dvina, near Orletsy in the Panilovo Volost (Arkhangelsk Region - O.G.) a large diamond was found, so during the reign of Empress Anna Ioannovna (1730-1740), guards were placed on these banks to prevent those on vessels sailing down the Dvina collecting the stones lying around there".

News of this find caught the interest of the well-known Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov. In his book Basic Principles of Metallurgy, or Mining Science (1763), he wrote that he considered the Orletsy Hills to be "capable of containing diamonds." The first Russian Academician commented in more depth on this in the book On the Earth's Strata: "In the North ... there can be no doubt that diamonds could occur... and could be found".

Geologist Nikolay Koltsov was the pioneer of the "diamond path" in Arkhangelsk Region, who was sent to the northern territories in 1931 as an "unreliable element - the son of a priest".

In 1936, when studying brines rising to the surface in Nyonoksa, in the Verkhovka river valley, Koltsov sank three wells. One of them unexpectedly drove into volcanic rock and the first serious claim of opening a diatreme was thus made. In 1937, Koltsov officially published conclusions on traces of volcanic activity on the Onega peninsula. The nature of the exotic rocks discovered by well "V" (now diatreme Lyvozero) led Koltsov to conclude that the south-east area of the White Sea region might bear diamonds.

The scientific world would appear to have been on the verge of a major discovery but shortly after this Koltsov fell victim to the political reprisals at the time. The geologist's name was long forgotten and his report buried in the geological archives.

"We knew where to search"

Only in the early 1970s did the pendulum of history shift in the opposite direction. By that time, Arkhangelsk Region was only nominally in a central position in Russia's European North. For a long time, the geological exploration of this territory proceeded very slowly: almost the entire region was covered with glacial, marine, lake and river overburden, dozens and sometimes hundreds of meters thick. Bogs, gullies, rifts and taiga... Extremely swampy, with an undeveloped transport system (the roads were either full of potholes or simply non-existent), the region remained on the margins of large-scale geological exploration.

The breakthrough came when the outstanding geologist Anatoly Stankovsky and his colleagues proved the existence of diatremes filled with eruptive breccia on the Onega peninsula, thus following in the footsteps of Nikolay Koltsov. The rocks were classed as alkali-ultrabasic, related to kimberlite. A geological 1:200.000 survey by the geologists and geophysicists of the Arkhangelskgeologia association (then called the Arkhangelsk expedition of Sevzapgeolupravlenie, now JSC Arkhangelskgeoldobycha) discovered the Nenokskoye field of diatremes, the number of which subsequently reached 23. In memory of Koltsov, one of the pipes was named after him.

Following a brief "diamond boom" in the vicinity of Nyonoksa and on the Onega peninsula, the subject was closed: no diamonds were found here. Scientific circles, who were skeptical about the possibility of finding diamond-bearing provinces in the North-West of Russia, took a short-term interest in the "Timan version," but they did not manage to find any commercial diamond deposits on the Timan ridge.

USSR Minister of Geology (from 1975 to 1989), Academician Evgeny Kozlovsky, under whom the ultimate "diamond breakthrough" was made in Arkhangelsk Region, recalls that skeptics initially called the discoveries in the north "chance" ones. This is what he says: "The discoveries of diamond deposits in Yakutia may equally be termed "chance" ones. That is not the case. The system was operating! The Union, irrespective of the boundaries of regions and republics, was divided up into territorial geological administrations. Some were created on the borders of geological structures. On this basis, unique in the world up to our days, the geological administration of the Ministry of Geology operated. They had their own assets, production capacities and, accordingly, tasks to seek certain types of minerasl. We knew where and what we were seeking. Going back to the same situation with respect to Yakutia, it is no secret that a tremendous amount of work was carried out on studying materials relating to South Africa before our specialists made their first discoveries. The findings in Arkhangelsk Region were no surprise to us either. Despite the difficult mining and technical conditions, the prospects for deposits of White Sea diamonds were clearly evident".

Concerning the work performed by the specialists of Arkhangelskgeoldobycha (AGD), Evgeny Kozlovsky admits frankly that: "They really did achieve a lot. In fact, their work gave the impetus to new large-scale studies. The discoveries were significant on the countrywide scale. So there was an obvious need to speed up the work. As a result, we obtained an important diamond-bearing province".

The field named in honour of the former Chief Geologist of Arkhangelskgeoldobycha Vladimir Grib is located 130 km north-east of Arkhangelsk. A diamond-bearing kimberlite pipe was discovered on the southern border of the Verkhotin area in February 1996.

Not revolution but evolution

Government-owned Arkhangelskgeologia company changed its form of ownership in August 1995. After LUKOIL acquired the controlling block of shares in AGD in 1998, the key tasks posed for the company included maintaining the geological exploration potential, for diamonds, too.

This approach has stood the test of time. Among the taiga and bogs, the Verkhotin diamond-bearing area spreads over an area of 400 km2. Nine kimberlite pipes have already been discovered here and not only the V. Grib pipe is of serious commercial interest.

For the purposes of further prospecting and specification of the deposit's reserves according to international standards, and also for determining the profitability of the project, specialists of Arkhangelskgeoldobycha have taken a fundamentally new (by domestic standards) approach to preparing the program for developing the deposit. The entire range of mining innovations and the latest technologies has been used, making it possible to work on specifying the deposit's reserves without the protracted and costly pilot project stage. Justification of this approach is guaranteed by participation in the project by SRK Consulting and SGS - companies enjoying deserved international prestige.

The most important condition for effective development is the experience accumulated over the past 20 years by the biggest mining companies in the world. Speaking of the ideology and concept of the project, General Director of Arkhangelskgeoldobycha Maxim Meshcheryakov notes that no one in AGD disputes the principles of the existing system of domestic subsoil use but they do assume that it will evolve further.

In December 2008 (when work was launched on the V. Grib deposit), in the area of the Verkhotin sector, there was nothing but an empty field surrounded by forests and bogs. A 21 km road was laid through the taiga, four reinforced concrete bridges built, a number of priority facilities erected: a field camp, a diesel electric power plant, fuel and lubricant stores, a helicopter landing pad, a core storage facility and an enriching unit, all within the shortest possible time, this creating the initial outline of the mining and processing complex that will have a capacity of 4.5 million tons of ore a year. Stripping work, laying of on-site roads, landfill operations for the construction sites, construction of the main energy complex and a permanent field camp are now all successfully under way at the deposit.

The geology of the V. Grib deposit is as follows: pipe diameter - 450 m, depth - more than 1 km. Owing to the highly swampy nature of the locality, the deposit has a complex geological structure characterized by major water flows. All this necessitated additional measures to ensure the stability of the sides of the quarry, as well as a search for optimal engineering solutions. These include drilling of water-level reducing shafts along the outer perimeter of the quarry for constant pumping out of liquid. According to Arkhangelskgeoldobycha Chief Geologist Nikolay Golovin, the water-level reducing shafts constitute a protective ring precluding pollution of natural waters discharged into the nearby lake.

In addition, at Verkhotin, the state of the water, air, floras and fauna are constantly monitored.

A combined method will be used for developing the deposit. This means that, initially, a quarry will appear here, followed by an underground mine. The experts believe this approach will make it possible to develop the reserves efficiently and make maximum use of their potential. The future quarry pit will be 1.5 km wide and will be in operation for 16 years. The mining and processing complex will be started up in 2013, so, in two years' time, a new volume will be added to the recorded history of LUKOIL - one devoted to diamonds.

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Oil of Russia, No. 4, 2011
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