The [Ontario] Ring of Fire – by Peter Gorrie (ONnature Magazine: Fall 2010)

Ontario Nature is a charitable organization representing more than 30,000 members and supporters and 140 member groups across Ontario. Their goal is to protect wild species and wild spaces through conservation, education and public engagement. This article is from their magazine On Nature. A more thorough explanation of Ontario Nature’s mission and goals is listed at the end of this posting.

Peter Gorrie is a Toronto-based freelance writer specializing in environmental and energy issues, and the environment columnist for The Toronto Star.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

The Ring of Fire – by Peter Gorrie

Buried treasure – copper, nickel, diamonds, chromite – lies beneath northern Ontario’s vast boreal landscape, prompting a frenzy of unchecked mining activity despite the provincial government’s two-year-old promise to safeguard half the boreal region and promote sustainable development in the other half. Will the Ring of Fire become Ontario’s tar sands?

Standing beside the metal-clad head frame of a former gold mine in the middle of the broad northern Ontario landscape near Aroland First Nation, Andrew Megan Sr. tells me a story that, he says, took place some 70 years earlier.

His father and uncle, working their trapline, found a rock flecked with gold. The men showed the rock to a non-native prospector and, when asked, showed him where they had come upon it. In return, he gave each a pouch of tobacco.

Months passed – how many is unclear – but one day as Megan, his father, uncle and relatives sat in their bush camp, they heard a mechanical roar. They scattered as a bulldozer crashed through the trees and brush. The next year, work began on a mine that continued, off and on, until 1984. Prospectors had been exploring and staking the area for more than a decade, but the rock found by Megan’s father and uncle pinpointed a potentially rich vein of gold that spurred development of the site. Over the next four decades, a series of companies, including Osulake Mines and Consolidated Louanna, attempted to determine the extent and value of the ore body and start operations, but the mine didn’t produce any gold for sale until near the end of its life.

Megan, now 72 and a respected elder, recounts the story to make a point he considers crucial. The events he describes are from a time when the notion that native land rights might exist beyond reserves, and that compensation should be paid for incursions into those territories, wasn’t a consideration. The mining activity, while offering some benefits, did damage he does not want repeated.

Grey-haired, slow-moving but still nimble, Megan surveys the decaying buildings, rusting fuel barrels, piles of rock and bits of metal that scar a landscape he knows intimately. He points to the black pipes that once poured water and waste through the mine’s underground tunnels to nearby O’Sullivan Lake and wonders aloud why the site wasn’t properly cleaned up and why the company was allowed to discharge contaminants that he believes decimated the lake’s pike, pickerel and trout.

Megan says he was employed at the mine, mainly as a labourer, working both above ground and as deep as 150 metres below the surface. Aroland is near Nakina, a town at the fingertip of the road that points north from Highway 11, four hours northeast of Thunder Bay. People from both communities earned a good living at this mine and another nearby that extracted iron ore. There were also jobs for loggers and in a pulp mill and railway maintenance. But during the 1980s and 1990s markets dried up and the mines and mill closed. Now, young people have nothing to do, says Megan angrily.

Recent discoveries of gold, diamonds, chromite, nickel, copper and other minerals might bring jobs back to Ontario’s northern boreal, the pristine wilderness that blankets the upper half of the province. Claim stakers and exploration teams have flocked to an area nearly twice the size of PEI known as the Ring of Fire. Aroland is south of it, but some mines might nevertheless hold job prospects for Megan’s community. “I want development,” he says, but this time, “it has to be done properly.”

Megan is right. Resource extraction on this scale – in an area covering some 10,000 square kilometres on which crowd 4,600 mining claims – must be done very, very carefully. After all, sustainable mining is, arguably, an oxymoron. Instead, the environmental impacts of this industry must be assessed in terms of thresholds and an attempt must be made to determine how much damage surrounding ecosystems can withstand before collapsing.

Ontario’s far north is a remarkable landscape that has been safeguarded by its remoteness. Not anymore. According to Queen’s Park, mining in the Ring of Fire is the fiscal solution to the north’s economic maladies, but the environmental price could be steep in this land of lakes and forests, home to at-risk woodland caribou, and short-eared owls as well as millions of migratory birds. Politicians, mining companies, environmentalists and First Nations agree, theoretically, on the importance of preserving the region’s ecological values and the rights of its inhabitants to determine what happens in their homeland.

All profess a need for consultation and planning. But the frenzy of exploration and staking within the Ring of Fire reveals a wide gap between visionary statements and events on the ground that, if left unchecked, will have far-reaching consequences for all of northern Ontario. The ripple effect extends beyond our province. The area slated for destruction is a massive storehouse of carbon that would be released at a time when we are wrestling with ways to reduce emissions and would, in all likelihood, have global implications.

“How all of us think through the Ring of Fire will be a key test for the entire region,” observes Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature. “It’s the real thing. It’s going to be pretty challenging to make it work so that everyone benefits.”

The Ring of Fire is a small piece of the boreal forest that covers Ontario’s far north and stretches across northern Canada, Russia and Alaska. No part of the boreal forest is less touched by human activity than Ontario’s huge swath, totalling 450,000 square kilometres, an area slightly larger than Newfoundland and Labrador. According to the final report, released this year, by the provincially appointed Far North Science Advisory Panel, the far north is “one of the world’s largest, most intact ecological systems … providing ecosystem services far beyond its borders.”

A soggy land of black spruce, jack pine and white birch, with peat bogs along the James and Hudson bay coasts, Ontario’s far north is home to 11 species at risk, including bald eagles and wolverines, and contains rare habitat for sea-run brook trout. Each summer, hundreds of millions of migratory songbirds breed in Ontario’s boreal forest, and the coastlines are internationally recognized sanctuaries for Canada and snow geese and several varieties of ducks and shorebirds. The region’s peat bogs store an estimated 20 to 30 billion tonnes of carbon and absorb toxic mercury emitted by industries around the world.

With the notable exception of the De Beers open-pit Victor diamond mine midway up the James Bay coast, all of Ontario north of, roughly, the 51st parallel has been off limits to industry. Thirty-four isolated communities dot the region where some 25,000 Native people live, and the only source of employment is a handful of government-funded jobs. Drug and alcohol abuse are rampant; the youth suicide rate is among the world’s highest.

For decades, people who work in the mining business were aware that mineral deposits existed in this difficult to access region. Not until 2002, however, did miners in search of additional veins of diamonds discover a rich source of nickel, copper, platinum and palladium, used in, among other things, electronic devices. Then, in September 2007, Richard Nemis, head of Noront Resources Ltd., a junior mining company, discovered a circular deposit full of the sought-after minerals. Nemis was a fan of the late country music star Johnny Cash and dubbed his exploration camp “the Ring of Fire” after one of the singer’s biggest hit songs. The name caught on and was quickly applied to the entire crescent-shaped region where minerals lie close to the earth’s surface, having been pushed upward as a result of millions of years of heat and pressure.

The following year, when Montreal-based Freewest Resources Canada Inc. discovered chromite – an essential ingredient of stainless steel that’s not found in commercially valuable quantities anywhere else in North America – the rush was truly on.

At the same time, Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his government’s intention to preserve half the province’s far north as wilderness and require that development in the other half await regional land-use plans that would minimize environmental damage and bring economic, social and political benefits to local people. Those goals are enshrined in the Far North Act, which the Ontario legislature approved in principal last spring.

The premier’s pledge was lauded as an ecological victory despite being a development scheme. Environmentalists were generous in their praise, claiming that the assurance that planning would precede development was a vast improvement over industry’s more customary heavy-booted march into frontier zones.

The environmental community is less sanguine today. Although the Far North Act has yet to be passed and not a single regional plan outlining where and how development should proceed has been drafted, mineral exploration continues at a feverish pace in the Ring of Fire. More than 30 mining companies – from Canada, the United States and China – have staked thousands of claims in the region located 240 kilometres west of James Bay.

Mining companies – anticipating enough ore to keep them busy for a century – appear confident in the anticipated windfall. Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. paid $240 million to acquire one potential mine and is spending tens of millions more to acquire a controlling interest in mining company Spider Resources Inc., which holds a 26.5 percent interest in a 40-million tonne chromite deposit. Cliffs plans to spend $800 million to build its first mine, and Spider Resources estimates it could cost billions to develop its find. KWG Resources Inc. is investing $14 million to study the feasibility of a 350-kilometre railway line to connect with tracks farther south. Noront says exploration activities to determine whether a mine would make economic sense will cost at least $40 million. Even in an industry prone to hyperbolic declarations, these are impressive numbers.

The provincial government is equally enthusiastic about the mining boom. The Speech from the Throne last March described the Ring of Fire as a key part of the “Open Ontario” economic growth strategy. The ring contains “one of the largest chromite deposits in the world” and “the most promising mining opportunity in Canada in a century. [Our] government is fully committed to working with northerners, Aboriginal communities and mining partners to fully realize [its] potential.” Later that month, the provincial budget allocated $45 million over three years for skills training “to help Aboriginal Peoples and northern Ontarians participate in and benefit from emerging economic development opportunities, such as the Ring of Fire.”

So what happened to the promise to protect the northern boreal? The government insists it remains committed to conservation and sustainable development. “Real balance is needed,” says Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Michael Gravelle. “But it is more than possible to move ahead with this in an environmentally sustainable way.”

But Ontario Nature and other concerned parties question the feasibility of Gravelle’s claim, given that it is quite possible that none of the proposed mining projects will be subjected to thorough environmental assessments.

According to Cheryl Chetkiewicz, associate conservation scientist of the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada, all projects should have assessments that include baseline studies showing the environment as it is so that changes can be measured and mitigated. “By the time these projects are built, it’s too late to figure out what they might have done.” If plans were drawn up that determined the best use of the landscape and required environmental assessments, then this glaring absence could be rectified. “Proceeding with development on that potentially immense scale ahead of region-wide land-use planning is putting the cart before the horse,” says Schultz. “It forecloses on other options that might emerge from the planning process.”

Any assessments – even on projects as large as Cliffs Natural Resources’ declared “world-class chromite mine” – will focus only on individual developments, without looking at their cumulative or wider-scale impacts.

Fish populations in the north could be decimated if roads increase access to lakes and angling or netting increase, says Jenni McDermid, a freshwater conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society. Tailings ponds will pollute lakes and rivers. Draining mine sites will probably impair water quality or interfere with natural water levels that fish require for breeding and spawning.

Already, “several major projects have actually reached the feasibility or engineering stage,” the panel report notes. “While none has received official approval, planning for these corridor projects is now well advanced outside … planning processes and prior to the passage of the [Far North Act].” KWG’s railway line is the only one directly linked to the Ring of Fire, but two other developments cited in the report – a 430-kilometre high-voltage transmission line west of the mining area and a year-round road to connect communities along the James Bay coast to Ontario’s highway network – illustrate the problem.

People need to look at the big picture, argues Tim Gray, an expert on forestry and land use at the Ivey Foundation. “It’s not just a question of deciding which areas you want to protect and writing off the rest. You have to set thresholds in the areas where development will occur.” What are the impacts of all the roads that will be built? How many mines are proposed, and will the ore be extracted from open pits or underground shafts? Ontario’s far north is an intricate web of waterways. What will happen far downstream from the mining operations? Without environmental assessments, no one is sure that any of these questions will be answered. “There are cumulative impacts with all the stresses, none of which are being taken into account,” points out Schultz.

“I don’t think anyone has a good handle on what would happen in that landscape,” echoes McDermid.

In situations where development threatens the integrity of the natural environment, typically most green advocates would oppose it, often in collaboration with Native groups. At the very least, they would demand a moratorium until protection was in place and First Nations’ concerns were addressed.

“Isn’t that a smart thing to do?” Chetkiewicz asks. “Isn’t that what people should be clamouring for, to get our ducks in a row before development starts?”

But widespread, almost desperate, support for mining constrains calls for a halt. Like people in Aroland, most of those in the six First Nations whose territories are at least partially within the Ring of Fire are eager for development. They anticipate cash payments and jobs, as well as rail routes or all-weather highways that would end their expensive dependence on aircraft and winter ice roads. In the wake of logging and mill closures, residents of northern towns view the mining boom as their salvation.

“I know that a lot of the environmentalists would like us just to stop,” Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey tells me. “But to be honest, I’ve heard both sides. I’ve had a lot of northern mayors come down to see me and ask that we not slow things down because a lot of northern communities have been struggling … and they’re afraid that if we slow things down to a stop, their communities will die.”

But most environmentalists and scientists are not calling for a complete halt. The Far North Science Advisory Panel report, for example, recommends that the Ring of Fire be treated as an exceptional case. “We haven’t said ‘stop it,’” says David Pearson, an earth sciences professor at Sudbury’s Laurentian University who chaired the panel. “We don’t live in la-la land,” but, he continues, “what’s happening can’t be taken as a template or precedent for the way development takes place” elsewhere in the north. “They could initiate a land-use planning process right now that would provide stability and certainty for everybody,” says Anna Baggio, of CPAWS Wildlands League. “If you plan properly at the outset, you can avoid so much conflict down the road.”

From my perch in an aging Otter floatplane Esker Camp seems a lonely outpost in a green sea of forest and bog that washes the horizon in all directions. We’ve flown more than two hours north from Nakina over roadless bush to get here, the journey broken by a brief stop in Marten Falls First Nation, an impoverished, isolated community of widely scattered, weather-beaten bungalows.

This is the heart of the Ring of Fire. The camp, operated by Toronto-based Noront, is a T-shaped clearing, criss-crossed by plank walkways that link white tents – each with four narrow beds – and drab-green service buildings. Forty-five gallon drums sit on large plastic sheets with 41-centimetre high sides to contain spills. Drilling rigs – boxlike yellow structures surmounted by dark blue metal towers – occupy a handful of satellite clearings. The rigs drive hollow metal rods as deep as 2,000 metres below the wet surface, pulling up sample cores that reveal how much valuable material is embedded within the earth. About 100 holes have been drilled, at $500 per metre. That work is to continue until year-end.

Here, no one is allowed to forget that time is money. The drills – named after Cash, his wife, June, their son, John Jr., and the singer’s famous “Boy Named Sue” – operate around the clock, each run by a driller and helper working 12-hour shifts. Another 45 or so people, mostly men, provide technical support, food, basic medical care and cleaning services in an operation that, by bush standards, is spotlessly maintained. The boardwalks are essential: off them, you would be halfway up your calves in boot-sucking mud. A helicopter drones incessantly, ferrying people and supplies between the camp and its floatplane dock on nearby Koper Lake, and to the rigs.

A gravel airstrip – one of two in the Ring of Fire – and another camp are a few minutes’ flight away. The second camp is on lower ground than Noront’s and built closer to McFaulds Lake than provincial regulations allow, raising fears of water pollution. Both camps installed permanent structures without the required permits. KWG’s railway evaluation involves helicopter-supported drilling. Other companies’ camps and rigs dot the Ring of Fire.

Intended to provide all-season alternatives to ice runways, the airstrips required an environmental assessment. That regulation was ignored until environmentalists and First Nations complained and the government closed the facilities until assessments are completed. (In a twist that illustrates the complexity of the issues relating to the Ring of Fire, a company partly owned by Marten Falls First Nation built the airstrip near Esker Camp.)

The First Nations communities have insisted all along on being shareholding partners with the mining companies, and equals with the provincial government. The First Nations want final say on what occurs on their traditional lands, which cover almost the entire far north. Marten Falls First Nation Chief Eli Moonias has called for “strict environmental controls and accountability.” He and others have complained that they are not being properly consulted about or included in Ring of Fire projects and as a result vow to oppose the Far North Act.

Last winter, community members blockaded two ice airstrips for two months to draw attention to their demands. This summer, chiefs from across Ontario’s far north forced cancellation of the hearings on the legislation, accusing the government of imposing a too hasty timetable.

“Staking and new exploration activities must be paused until we have had an opportunity to complete land-use plans, which would outline where these activities could take place,” said the seven communities belonging to the Mushkegowuk Council, whose territories are on several rivers downstream from the Ring of Fire. “If [the Far North Act] passes without our free, prior and informed consent, we will not recognize the application of the law in our territory,” echoed the five chiefs who comprise the Shibogama First Nations Council, in the province’s northwest corner.

Provincial politicians say they agree that planning and protection are crucial, as is First Nations’ involvement. “They want to be asked; they want to be consulted,” acknowledges Jeffrey. “My goal is to make sure they have the capacity … and that we help them to determine how development will occur.”

The Far North Act would clarify and strengthen rights set out in century-old treaties and “mark the first time in Ontario’s history that a requirement for First Nations approval of land-use plans on public lands would be embedded in law,” the minister told the legislature last spring.

In the meantime, however, the government has let events overtake its legislation, creating a vacuum that forces companies and First Nations to haggle on their own.

The experience of Attawapiskat First Nation, on James Bay northeast of the Ring of Fire, demonstrates the pitfalls of haphazard deal making. Some people in the community of about 2,000 say they got the modern equivalent of a pouch of tobacco in an agreement struck five years ago with De Beers that paved the way for Ontario’s first diamond mine. De Beers agreed to pay $28.5 million to the community over 12 years, which translates into less than $1,200 per person annually, and much of the money goes to the costs associated with monitoring the agreement, including fees for lawyers, consultants, administrators and rent. Most of the approximately 100 or so jobs available at the mine are catering and maintenance positions – what Chief Theresa Hall describes as “menial, low-paying tasks.”

Flaws in the De Beers deal and challenges within the community have combined to virtually eliminate job training, and De Beers is purchasing most of its supplies and services from outside companies, reducing local business opportunities, says resident Jackie Hookimaw Witt. Water is continually drained from the boggy mine site into the Attawapiskat River, a local source of fish. Although evidence is inconclusive, many residents fear that the fish are contaminated due to high levels of mercury that’s mobilized when bogs are disturbed.

Without question, the impacts of the agreement and conflict over its merits have caused divisions in Attawapiskat, as resentment simmers between people without jobs and people who are employed.

History is in danger of repeating itself: despite complaints about aggressive timetables, several communities have signed agreements with mining companies allowing exploration in exchange for jobs and cash. Marten Falls, for example, gets two dollars for every metre Noront drills – a provision that probably has delivered less than $300,000, although exact figures have not been made public.

Fissures among First Nations communities have also appeared in the face of big development.

Residents within the Ring of Fire are in more of a hurry for development than people who live outside it, who might feel its impacts but are not, as yet, assured of any benefits. Even the definition of protection is contentious. “We want to be in a position to determine what lands will be protected or open to resource development,” says Stan Beardy, grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents most of the far north communities and some farther south. “But the view of the government is that land is protected from any activity, including resource or other development and use of motorized vehicles, to preserve the natural setting far into the future.”

“Our definition,” Beardy explains, “is that we’re saving something today for future consideration, leaving the option for future generations to decide what they need for their survival. The government’s idea is absolute; ours is more flexible, depending on the circumstances of the time.”

Perhaps a pause would be a good idea right about now, until at least most of the environmental, social and political knots are untied. Admittedly, a slowdown would find little favour in northern Ontario. But if development is to be done “properly,” the provincial government must accept its responsibilities so that the Ring of Fire becomes neither another environmental disaster nor a precedent for the rest of the far north.

“I have questions about the way exploration and development are taking place,” Pearson says. “They’re doing business as usual. If it takes more time to get the chromite to market, those years are a small price to pay.”

“Nobody is anti-mining,” says Schultz, “but we want to ensure it’s compatible with broader landscape-based objectives. The Ring of Fire shouldn’t proceed until land-use plans are in place. Planning must be in sync with development. Otherwise there may be a point at which we have to say, ‘this has to slow down, or stop.’ The potential for damage is enormous, but the potential for getting it right exists.”

At the mine site, Megan leads the way to large piles of broken drill cores dotted with bits of rusting metal. A few minutes later, he is reminiscing inside a small, decomposing log cabin at a lush, peaceful site alongside O’Sullivan Lake.

Consolidated Louanna Gold Mines built the cabin as a site headquarters. When the company moved out, it gave the place to Megan for trapping, and he still returns frequently. The attraction is obvious: the low, heavily treed shoreline opposite the cabin reveals a complete absence of human activity. A marshy bay to the right teams with chirping frogs. The large, flat, crystal-clear lake is renowned for its abundant pickerel and lake trout.

Megan’s relationship with the mining industry, like that of many other people in the far north, is layered and complex, marked by gains and losses – a description that could equally apply to the Ring of Fire mining projects and the hope and fear their presence elicits. All the players are standing at a crossroads contemplating an extraordinary landscape that is at risk of becoming a one million-hectare environmental mess that may or may not continue to support its wildlife, its inhabitants and their descendents for a long, long time into the future.

The boreal forest’s Carbon storehouse

The peat bogs that cover much of Ontario’s far north are cold and poor in nutrients. They are also waterlogged, so when plants die they sink into an oxygen-free zone. That makes the bogs a capacious storehouse for carbon: they grow less plant matter than areas farther south, but the lack of oxygen in peat bogs ensure that what is in them decomposes very slowly. And the bog plants – such as sphagnum moss and Labrador tea – decompose more slowly than plants in less extreme habitats.

All this means that carbon stays in the boggy ground rather than being released into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gases methane and carbon dioxide. Until, that is, the bogs are disturbed: when they are drained or bulldozed, the dead material, built up over 6,000 to 7,000 years, is exposed to oxygen and decays rapidly.

That, people fear, is what might happen in Ontario’s far north, as a result of development and because the peat itself might be mined.

The recently released final report of the Far North Science Advisory Panel suggests the region contains 35.3 billion tonnes of carbon – 26 billion in the lowlands west of James and Hudson bays, the rest in the forests. These amounts are roughly double the estimates of a decade ago, says Nigel Roulet, professor of biogeosciences at Montreal’s McGill University, who contributed to the panel report.

According to Roulet, “the numbers are still guesses, but much more informed guesses,” as measurement of the area and depth of the bogs continues, through satellite data and field work. “With more information,” Roulet says, “probably the numbers will go up.” That 35.3 billion tonnes might seem puny when the global total of carbon stored in living and dead plant matter is said to be 2,300 billion tonnes. But the advisory panel’s estimate is close to the net 30 billion tonnes that result each year from human activity and are upsetting the natural balance of emissions and absorption that has kept greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere relatively stable for millennia is causing climate change.

Mining, road building and other activities would disturb the bogs. Toronto-based Peat Resources Ltd. is a more direct threat: the company says it has identified 200 million tonnes of “fuel-grade” peat that could be stripped off the land and converted into pellets to power electricity-generating stations.

“That’s an environmental disaster waiting to happen,” says Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s senior director of conservation and education.

The Ontario Power Authority, which manages the province’s electricity generating system, considers peat to be biomass and thus a renewable resource. The Ministry of Natural Resources considers peat to be non-renewable. Ontario Nature is among 14 environmental groups that want the provincial government to issue a clear directive that peat is to be treated as a non-renewable resource.

“Neither the extraction nor use of peat as an alternative energy source is consistent with the government’s larger agendas to tackle climate change, conserve biodiversity or promote sustainable development in the Far North,” the groups stated in a letter to the natural resources and energy ministers.
Peat “may come back, but it would take 7,000 years,” Roulet says. “Calling it renewable is a great stretch.”

“It renews so slowly that it’s another form of fossil fuel,” agrees Bell. “It can’t be renewed in any time scale that’s meaningful to humans.”

Peter Gorrie

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Ontario Nature: Mission and Strategic Goals: (http://www.ontarionature.org/index.php)

Ontario Nature protects wild species and wild spaces through conservation, education and public engagement.

Ontario Nature is a charitable organization representing more than 30,000 members and supporters and 140 member groups across Ontario.

Since it was established as the Federation of Ontario Naturalists in 1931, Ontario Nature has been a champion for nature in Ontario.

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