The quest for fire

The rewards will be great for those intent on developing Ontario’s new mining district, but they will not come without plenty of hard work and more than a little patience

By D'Arcy Jenish

When Noront Resources made the first major discovery in the nascent mining region, dozens of junior exploration companies rushed into the formidable terrain of swamps, bogs, muskeg and mosquito-infested boreal forest to stake claims. Located near the shores of McFauld’s Lake, some 550 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, the region has yielded three major finds: the Black Thor and Big Daddy chromite deposits, and the nearby Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-platinum-palladium resource.

Cliffs Natural Resources bought all of Black Thor and owns 70 per cent of Big Daddy. Together, those represent the first major chromite discoveries in North America, and current resource estimates indicate they may be large enough to support multi-generational mines. At the moment, Cliffs intends to develop Black Thor first, and is committed to investing $3.3 billion in that mine and a smelter located at Capreol, just outside Sudbury. Meanwhile, Noront is steadily developing its smaller Eagle’s Nest property close by.

However, before either company ships a pound of metal to market, they have some difficult hurdles to clear.

Environmental assessments

Noront has been operating in the shadow of Cliffs, largely because its polymetallic deposits are not judged to be world-class scale, but Noront president and CEO Wes Hanson says the company aims to have an underground mine in production by late 2016 and hopes to be first to produce from the Ring of Fire. The company released its feasibility study last September. Cliffs began its feasibility study in the spring and aims to conclude the study by June 2013. It currently anticipates production in 2016.

In the meantime, several hundred kilometres of all-weather road must be built, likely from Nakina, on the CN’s east-west mainline, north to the Ring of Fire. Electrical transmission lines may be built, or the companies may have to rely on diesel generators. And both companies must also submit their projects to federal and provincial environmental assessment agencies.

Those assessments are currently underway. In Ontario, mining companies are required to complete a seven-step process that involves several rounds of consultation with the public and First Nations communities, and ministerial approval at each stage. In the first round, the companies must describe the project; the second requires a detailed assessment of environmental impacts, measures to manage and mitigate those impacts, and a record of public consultation. Before final approval is granted, the environment minister has the option of submitting a project to a tribunal for public hearings or of sending it to a mediator to resolve conflicts between proponents and surrounding communities.

According to a spokesperson for the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, both Cliffs and Noront are at the initial stage of the environmental assessment process. Cliffs has submitted terms of reference, or a description of the project, while Noront submitted a plan earlier this year but is currently revising it.

The duty to consult

Equally important socio-economic agreements will have to be signed with several Aboriginal communities whose traditional lands will be affected by the developments. Each First Nation speaks for itself, and consensus may be difficult to achieve, but the Marten Falls band has signed a pre-development agreement with Cliffs, and in early September, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Ontario government that defines the issues to be hammered out. “Infrastructure is one of the things we’ll be discussing,” says the band’s elected chief, Eli Moonias. “Connectivity to our communities is another. That’s road access and electricity. Revenue-sharing is another thing we want to discuss. We also want to ensure that these projects don’t turn our environment into a chemical soup.”

Marten Falls, a small, remote Anishinaabe community located some 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, is accessible by winter road and year-round by air, and relies on diesel-generated electricity because it is beyond the province’s power grid. Half of the band’s 650 residents have scattered to other parts of the country in search of work. “There are no jobs here,” says Chief Moonias. “People are on welfare. Social conditions are bad. We need something to get us out of the poverty we’re in.”

For the people of Marten Falls and for several other First Nations, the Ring of Fire developments have the potential to be that something. However, at this stage, at least one First Nation has been pushing back against the advancing projects, and what the community regards as a lack of substantive consultation. “They are not listening to us,” says Peter Moonias, the 67-year-old chief of the Neskantaga First Nation, which has a population of some 450. “They’re bullying us. They think we’re non-existent and have no rights. This is a small community, but it’s a community with rights.” The band has so far been frustrated in its attempts to be formally included in the development planning of the Ring of Fire.

Rick Bartolucci, Ontario’s minister of mines and northern development, says the provincial government is committed to broad consultations with all the affected First Nations communities to ensure that the potential eco­nomic, social, cultural and environmental impacts are taken into account before development proceeds. “We’re responding with new approaches to complement existing regulatory tools,” points out Bartolucci. “We’ve agreed to discuss revenue-sharing. Our discussions are at a very, very preliminary stage, but that is a very important issue with the First Nations in the Ring of Fire.”

Patricia Persico, Cliffs communications director, acknowledged that the pace of discussions with different First Nations communities is uneven. “We have made progress with some First Nation communities to help make this project a reality. For other communities, we have reached out to the leadership to discuss the project, but we have to be invited in,” she explains. “We want to be respectful – there is a lot at stake.”

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