Have your say on Cliffs’ EA [Ring of Fire] – by Ian Ross (Northern Ontario Business – October, 2011)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business ianross@nob.on.ca.

Oct. 17 will be the public’s first crack to comment on Cliffs Natural Resources’ massive integrated chromite project slated for the James Bay region. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) will start taking written submissions only on the multi-billion dollar regional mining, transportation and processing development.

The agency announced Oct. 7 that a federal environmental assessment of the Cliffs project in the ‘Ring of Fire’ has formally started with a comprehensive study.

While it’s clear that Black Thor will be the first chromite deposit to be mined starting in 2015, and the Nakina-Aroland area will be the site for a transload facility, the final location of a much-coveted ferrochrome production facility remains up in the air.

But CEAA spokeswoman Celine Legault said the federal regulator will be working from the project description submitted by Cliffs, which identifies the Sudbury in its “base case” as the site for electric arc furnaces.

“This is the information we will be using for the environmental assessment,” said Legault. “If this part of the project description changes during the (assessment), the agency will consider these changes carefully and make a decision at that time.”

Sudbury was identified earlier this year by the Ohio-based international miner (and again in September) as the leading front-runner to host the ferrochrome plant, ahead of Nakina, Timmins and Thunder Bay.

The property under consideration is a vacated brownfield site 20 kilometres north of the community of Capreol. It’s within a kilometre of the Canadian National Railway’s main line which runs northwest to Nakina.

Bill Boor, Cliffs’ senior vice-president for global ferroalloys, said this initial 30-day comment period “is, by far, not the only opportunity” for the public to have their say on the environmental aspect of the project as it advances.

“We’ll have this furnace issue resolved with plenty of opportunity for people to participate in the process.”

He gave no timeline when a decision is forthcoming.

“If you took me back in time, I would have liked to already had it made. I’m not going to put a date on it, but it’s a high priority for us to figure that out,” said Boor. “Every other aspect of the project is pretty clear.”

The production process would employ electric arc furnaces which would produce between 1,250 and 1,750 tonnes of ferrochrome daily to be sold for stainless steel manufacturing in North America and internationally.

The facility would employ between 350 to 450 people when operational. The furnaces would require 300 to 350 megawatts of power.

Boor said the price of power in Ontario, compared to neighbouring provinces, remains an issue. But he expressed confidence that discussions with the Ontario government should accelerate with the provincial election now over.

Boor said Manitoba and Quebec are among “several alternatives” also under consideration for a processing site.

“Security of pricing is important to us, but I don’t want to go too far on the discussions going on with the government and different provinces. It’s obvious to say we’re not doing a short-term project and security of power rate is very important to us.”

Cliffs’ Black Thor deposit is now in the pre-feasibility planning stage, which is expected to be completed by the end of this year. Plans call for a two-pit surface and underground operation with 30 years of mine life.

The CEAA’s comprehensive study is one of three types of environmental assessments. It tends to be geared to large projects with the potential for major adverse environmental effects.

Legault said the study could widen to a joint review panel if the federal environment minister deems there is sufficient public concern or considerable environmental impacts that can’t be mitigated.

A joint review panel involves an appointed group of experts who review and assess a project by inviting open discussion and exchange of views involving a large number of interest groups and members of the public.

This process was selected for Stillwater Mining’s Marathon PGM mine project near the north shore of Lake Superior.

For details go online at www.ceaa.gc.ca.

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