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BLIZZARD

Doubts about developing Ontario's Ring of Fire development

By Christina Blizzard, Special to the Sun

Two mining exploration camps are pictured in the proposed Ring of Fire development area, approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, This undated handout photo was obtained by the Reuters news agency on March 28, 2013.

Two mining exploration camps are pictured in the proposed Ring of Fire development area, approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, This undated handout photo was obtained by the Reuters news agency on March 28, 2013.

It has the potential to be the biggest financial boon this province has seen in a hundred years.

The Ring of Fire, a massive ore-rich but remote part of northwestern Ontario, is estimated to be worth as much as $60 billion in economic development.

It has a massive chromite deposit — the largest in North America. Chromite is a key ingredient in the manufacture of stainless steel.

But the area — named for the Johnny Cash song — isn’t just about chromite. It’s the province’s jewel box. In addition to chromite, there’s palladium, platinum, nickel, diamonds and gold.

But it’s the chromite that attracted the interest of mining companies.

There’s a tantalizing promise of jobs — especially for the many First Nations in the area.

Increasingly, though, there are doubts it will ever be developed.

The logistics are daunting.

The geography of the area makes development difficult. It is very remote — with no roads or rail line.

There’ll have to be a massive investment in infrastructure to get the chromite out.

But there’s a battle going on about how to do that.

Two companies working in the region have different visions for development.

One of them, KWG, wants a railroad. Another, Cliffs Natural Resources, prefers a road — a plan recently rejected by the province’s mining and lands commissioner. Executives from Cliffs have said that ruling puts their project in jeopardy.

Stan Sudol, a Toronto-based communications consultant and Sudbury Star freelance mining columnist, points to Ministry of Northern Development and Mines figures that peg the collective value of these massive chromite deposits and nickel, copper, platinum mines at about $60 billion. That could just be the start, he says.

Geologists say the Ring of Fire’s mineral value could easily double, he reports.

“The Ring of Fire is the richest new Canadian mining discovery in over a century,” he told me.

First Nations communities are largely supportive of this development as long as it’s done in an environmentally sustainable manner, provides training and jobs. And they want revenue-sharing agreements worked to benefit impoverished communities, he said.

Sudol believes a railroad makes the most long-term sense.

“The rough cost estimates for the road is $1 billion, and $2 billion and change for the railroad. The road will largely serve Cliffs and not have the capacity to deal with major new developments in the region,” he said.

Maintenance costs on the road will be high — probably bankrolled by Ontario taxpayers.

“Conversely, the railroad will be able to handle the predicted expansion of this mining camp for all companies, have significantly lower maintenance costs as well as link First Nations communities with short feeder roads,” he said.

Provincial Mines Minister Mike Gravelle said the project is vast — but complex.

“We continue to tout it was one of the greatest multi-generational economic development projects in the last 100 years,” he told me.

“I will acknowledge that I am feeling the pressure and we recognize clearly how important infrastructure is on a project like this,” he said.

He has talked to a number of the companies, including Cliffs, but can’t provide details of the options they discussed.

“We need to assess what’s the right decision moving forward, recognizing that the province does have a significant role to play related to infrastructure investment and we are committed to this project,” Gravelle said.

Tory mining critic Norm Miller countered the province is doing nothing.

“We’re seeing very little action in the Ring of Fire,” Miller told me.

“We even have stories about some of the bigger players considering whether they’re even going to stay there and I think it is a sad state of affairs,” he said.

New Democrat Michael Matha said the government made a splashy announcement about building a smelter in Sudbury to serve the Ring of Fire — and there has been silence ever since. He said it’s vital the province gets First Nation buy-in on the project.

Negotiations have been fairly positive so far.

Former premier and retired MP Bob Rae is negotiating on behalf of the First Nations, while lawyer Frank Iacobucci is the lead negotiator for the province.

“How First Nations are going to benefit is very important to this development,” Mantha said.

So will the Ring of Fire be an economic boon — or a bust?

Will it bring jobs to a part of the province that has been hit hard by the downturn in the economy?

Or will they just keep walking the line?

 


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