Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
Though Cliffs Natural Resources spooked a lot of Ring of Fire watchers Wednesday with its surprise announcement to temporarily stop work on an environmental assessment for the project, the company emphasized that it’s not pulling out.
“That is the furthest from our minds,” Cliffs global ferroalloys vice–president Bill Boor said Wednesday from the company’s Cleveland headquarters. “The bottom line is that we still very much believe in the project, and strategically, it remains as important to the company as it ever has been.”
Boor said 2017 remains the target for the chromite mine to begin production 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
When a Sudbury smelter is factored in, the $3.3-billion project is slated to create about 1,200 direct jobs over a 30-year mine life.
Despite his assurances, some believed the project was in jeopardy Wednesday when Boor formally expressed the company’s frustration with the environmental assessment process.
He said the company has hit a roadblock on being able reach an agreement with the province about what the assessment’s terms of references should be.
The company also remains concerned about a pending judicial challenge to the assessment process by the Matawa First Nations group, disputes over surface rights “and unfinished agreements with the government of Ontario that are critical to the project’s economic viability.”
Until those issues have been hammered out, said Boor, it’s pointless for the company to spend any more time on the environmental assessment (EA) process.
Boor said he didn’t know how long work on the assessment will be halted.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” he said. “I don’t know when (the company’s concerns) will be resolved.”
Thunder Bay Mayor Keith Hobbs said Cliffs’ announcement should be a signal to the provincial and federal governments to pick up the pace on the Ring of Fire file.
“The bottom line is that the feds and province have to get the necessary (road and power-supply) infrastructure in place in concert with the mining companies,” said Hobbs.
“Open up the North — everybody is waiting for them to do it.”
Hobbs said he wouldn’t be shocked if Cliffs is having second-thoughts about Ring of Fire.
“I think that with the markets (for minerals) being what they are at the moment, Cliffs may be stepping back and reevaluating,” he said.
“I think we’ve said all along that at the end of the day, it may not be Cliffs who develops (the Ring of Fire).
Ironically, Boor on Wednesday stressed that his working relationship with Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle is “outstanding.”
“We routinely talk about the project,” said Boor.
In a statement regarding Cliffs’ announcement, Gravelle sounded just as congenial: “Our conversations with Cliffs have been very productive and we continue to have a close relationship with them. We will continue to work diligently to finalize many aspects of an arrangement that would bring this significant investment to Ontario.”
Gravelle noted that “while Cliffs has notified the Ministry of the Environment that it plans to suspend its environmental assessment process, the company has not withdrawn its terms of reference.”
Boor said the Ring of Fire project is unique in terms of the complete lack of infrastructure in the area to be mined, as well as the number of First Nations (about half a dozen) requiring direct negotiation.
“I think we’ve had a lot of productive discussions with First Nations,” he said.
“In terms of the lack of infrastructure, I think we have found a way to make the project work. I just hope that it happens sooner rather than later.”
Boor said the company had hoped to have permits in place to start building the mine by the end of 2014.
Meanwhile, Toronto-based Noront Resources announced Wednesday that its separate plan for a nickel mine in the Ring of Fire remains on track.
“Noront is in the final stage of its environmental assessment for (its) Eagle’s Nest project and still intends to submit an EA to government this fall,” said a Noront news release.
Mining industry observers said Cliffs’ announcement was well-played.
“They’ve dumped this into the province’s lap and said, ‘You guys get your ducks in a row,’” said Thunder Bay’s Garry Clark, executive-director of the Ontario Prospectors Association.
“This may point to a problem with the system (of getting new mines approved,” said Clark.
About the Ring of Fire, he added: “It’s still a world-class deposit. It’s been there for millions of years, and it’s still going to be there 10 years from now.”