The prospects look huge for the Ring of Fire, an area of nearly 5,000 square kilometres within the James Bay Lowlands.
This area is smaller than Prince Edward Island, yet some 35 companies hold approximately 25,000 claim units, exploring for minerals as diverse as chromite, nickel, copper, zinc, platinum, gold and diamonds.
In January, Cliffs Natural Resources announced its Black Thor chromite deposit, currently undergoing prefeasibility assessment, could begin production by 2015.
The Cleveland-based company publicly estimated mine development costs at approximately $150 million, an ore concentrating plant at $800 million, and a ferrochrome processing facility at $1.8 billion.
Cliffs also pegged an integrated transportation system, including all-weather roads, at $600 million, but said it wants to share costs with other stakeholders.
“Because this transportation system is provincial infrastructure required for the general use of remote northern communities and other Ring of Fire mining projects, Cliffs anticipates its commitment to invest in the all-weather road would be partial, with the balance to be contributed by other industry participants and government entities,” Cliffs said in its statement.
Cliffs isn’t alone. Mining companies at the annual convention of the recent Prospectors and Developers Association in Toronto were promoting or talking about potentially high yields in the Ring of Fire.
Other players include KWG Resources of Toronto, which is focused on chromite, and Noront Resources of Toronto, eying copper, nickel, palladium and platinum deposits.
The Ring of Fire is a key reason why Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines estimated exploration spending province-wide last year had exceeded $1 billion.
“The Ring of Fire is a major economic development opportunity for the province and for our communities,” ministry spokesperson Adrian Kupesic told the Daily Commercial News.
“We’re committed to working together with all communities, all industry players and First Nations to seize the benefits for today and tomorrow.”
Kupesic confirmed his ministry is involved in “ongoing discussions” with Cliffs. Infrastructure could include all-weather roads, a rail corridor, electric power and resource processing facilities, he added, declining to discuss possible cost-sharing scenarios. “It’s too early to get into the specifics regarding any particulars of the proposed project, but the government is going to certainly do everything it can to put its best foot forward, to maximize the return for Ontarians.”
While the ministry says it wants to work with all parties, Aboriginal groups say they aren’t being adequately consulted.
Eli Moonias, Chief of Marten Falls First Nation, and Sonny Gagnon, Chief of Aroland First Nation, attended the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) convention in Toronto, in March, to monitor Ring of Fire activity.
Gagnon and Moonias participated in a news conference during the convention and said the First Nations don’t oppose development but must be fully involved in decision-making and environmental impacts must be minimized.
“At this point in time there hasn’t been any kind of process negotiated with our First Nations,” said Raymond Ferris, who attended PDAC in his capacity as Ring of Fire coordinator for the Matawa First Nations.
Matawa First Nations is a tribal council of nine northern Ontario First Nations located within Nishnawbe Aski Nation territory, and Ferris says members want a negotiated joint review panel and the financial resources they would need to conduct their own environmental studies and cultural and socio-economic impact assessments.
“We need to understand the technical details,” Ferris says. “Part of what consultation means is that the government needs to provide resources to the First Nations so we can hire some expertise, put this into lay terms, and then translate it into our languages.”
There’s keen interest in working on infrastructure-related projects. Matawa First Nation has established a regional development corporation and maintained a booth on the PDAC trade-show floor.
However, Ferris says, government and industry proponents must first meet Matawa’s consultation demands.
“Everything seems to be falling on deaf ears,” Ferris says. “If they (member First Nations) feel that they’re going to be left out there’s a big possibility they could stop this project, whether through the courts or through whatever means possible.”
Although recently revised, the Ontario Mining Act does not yet clarify protocols for consulting with First Nations.
Kupesic says his ministry has drafted proposed regulations and posted them on the provincial Environmental Bill of Rights web site for public comment. These are meant to spell out how the government expects the consultation process to unfold, he says.
“It’s almost like a check-list of what needs to be accomplished to ensure that adequate consultation is taking place.”
The deadline for comments is May 1.
Cliffs spokesperson Pat Persico confirmed discussions are ongoing with the government and First Nations, but she declined further comment.