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Green with jade

Feature - Jade
Rock hard
Seeing green
Birth of rock
Jade in Mesoamerica
Golden opportunities
Cartographer's table
Just the facts
CG vault

Biodiversity watchdog
The Jade West mines in northern British Columbia present many challenges to miners, but also promises a rich reward of large deposits of the mineral. (Photo: Jade West)

Rock hard
It's difficult and expensive to mine, so it's a good thing jade's cool green beauty is uncontested.
Story by Matthew Talbot

Setting out from Dease Lake, the settlement nearest their mines, Kirk Makepeace and his Jade West crew have little time to waste in the quest for beautiful green jade. Due to the combination of northern British Columbia's extremely rugged terrain and the winter weather conditions at the mines, their mining season lasts a mere 90 days. (Most mines operate for a full 12 months of the year.)

The Jade West mines, which Makepeace compares more to quarries, are about 100 kilometres east of Dease Lake. The process of removing the massive jade boulders — some weighing as much as 40 tonnes — and shipping them back to the lake settlement is accomplished with the use of enormous trucks and expensive diamond saws. But it wasn't always that way.


Back in the glory days of jade mining's beginnings, the miners would drill cores into boulders using small diamond saws they carried on their backs. The core was used to determine if a boulder contained jade and was worth staking. These boulders were marked with tall poles, in order to be retrieved later. In the winter, a team of Big Cat tractors would work its way over the frozen ground from the highway, find the marked boulders and pry them out of the ground. Then they'd pull, roll and slide them the 140 kilometres back to the highway.

How jade is mined
Today, most of those boulders have been tested and jade is now mined from enormous deposits, in a process very similar to removing rock from a quarry. First, miners expose seams of jade and use diamond-tipped core drills to pull out samples, ensuring that they meet the gem-grade requirements. Then, choosing only the best areas to focus on, the process begins.

Hydraulic spreaders are inserted into cleavage points in the rock face and the jade is broken away — a difficult process, Makepeace notes, because jade is the world's toughest stone. Unlike granite, which has a crystalline structure, jade is made of tightly woven fibres, similar to a fistful of human hair, which gives it its legendary strength.

Once the boulders are broken away, they're taken to diesel-operated, water-cooled diamond saws that chew into the boulder, splitting the jade into more manageable 10-tonne chunks.

Diamond saws are impressive machines. They are large blades, converted from old sawmills, and tipped with diamonds, which are used because they're tougher than jade. The saws need a constant supply of water to keep the diamonds cool; if they don't remain cool, about $10,000 worth of diamonds could be lost in a matter of seconds.

After the cutting, the boulders are hauled out along the jade trail on articulated rock trucks — huge vehicles that bend and twist in the middle to traverse the rocky, rolling hillsides of northern British Columbia. The extracted jade is stored in Dease Lake until the end of the season.

The cost of jade mining
Starting in mid-June and ending in mid-September, jade mining happens quickly and on a shoestring budget. In this short time, using what little resources and heavy equipment they have, miners for Jade West can remove more than 100 tonnes of jade. Makepeace, who is CEO of Jade West, calls this "pocket mining."

Jade mining is very different from other types of mining in Canada — and it gets much less notice. Makepeace notes that jade mining has been around for a while — the first boulders having been found in gold mines in the 1930s — but not much is known about it.

There's a lot more money in other types of mining, like gold and diamonds, but jade mines are subject to the same regulations. Jade West is governed by environmental bonding requirements to ensure they reduce disturbances and return the land to its original state: any trails they create must be re-formed and any pits must be refilled. This is one of the higher costs in jade mining.

Aside from using diesel to power their heavy equipment, only water is used to cool the diamond saws. Makepeace says there is no acid rock drainage or other environmental concerns with jade mining. A large jade deposit mined for 10 years may disturb land no bigger than a football field, and once the jade is extracted the land is re-formed.

Jade is one of Canada's least-recognized exports. It is shipped as far as China and is used in large carvings, traditional jade items, statues and more. Soon, Makepeace says, for the first time in the history of China's jade industry, jade will be available to the average consumer.

To date, the jade deposits in China have all but been exhausted, while Canada, and particularly British Columbia, has vast reserves that haven't been tapped. Yet that may not change: Makepeace says the reserves are locked away in the mountains, making them difficult and expensive to reach.

Makepeace says the industry was born of easily accessible jade. Still, although it's a small part of our multi-billion-dollar mining industry, as long as the world needs it, Canada will continue to export this beautiful green rock.


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