Cliffs stops work on chromite project in Ring of Fire

Cliffs Natural Resources announced Wednesday it's putting the brakes on environmental assessment work for its chromite project in the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario.

Cliffs Natural Resources says it needs various issues resolved

The chromite-rich area known as the Ring of Fire is controversial among environmentalists, First Nations and many communities who would be affected by the large-scale building of infrastructure and possibly decades of mining. (CBC)

Cliffs Natural Resources announced Wednesday it's putting the brakes on environmental assessment work for its chromite project in the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario.

The company is citing delays with government environmental assessments, land surface rights issues and negotiations with the province as problems to advancing its work on the mine, which is located in the James Bay lowlands.

Cliffs said it will resume activity when all parties are "collectively ready to make this project a reality."

Cliffs Natural Resources vice president Bill Boor. (Supplied)

"While most aspects of the chromite project have advanced according to plan, temporarily suspending the environmental assessment work acknowledges that certain critical elements of the project's future are not solely within our control and require the active support and participation by other interested parties such as government agencies and impacted First Nation communities," said Bill Boor, senior vice president of global ferroalloys for Cliffs, in a press release.

"We remain excited about this project and its potential for Cliffs and northern Ontario. However, given the current unresolved issues, we cannot and will not unilaterally move the process forward and must manage our resources appropriately."

Cliffs detailed the following "open issues" as "impeding the progress of the project's environmental assessment process, as well as the feasibility study evaluation":

  • Delayed approval of the Terms of Reference for the provincial Environmental Assessment (EA) process.
  • Uncertainty regarding the federal EA process due to the current judicial challenge by a number of the impacted First Nations.
  • Unresolved land surface rights issues following a February 2013 Mining and Land Commissioner hearing.
  • Unfinished agreements with the Government of Ontario that are critical to the project's economic viability.

The company said that before it can advance the project, Cliffs "must receive provincial and federal environmental assessment approvals, negotiate mutually acceptable agreements with impacted First Nation communities, work with governments to address the lack of infrastructure in the Ring of Fire and complete its commercial and technical feasibility studies."

'Can't put a time period on it'

Ontario's mines minister says the province is continuing its talks with Cliffs Natural Resources, however.

"We're going to continue to work closely with Cliffs to try to put those arrangements in a more formal state and I'm committed as minister to continue that close work with the company," Michael Gravelle said, adding that he he remains optimistic about the project.

Ontario's Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle (CBC)

On the provincial environmental review, Gravelle said the Ministry of Environment is "reviewing the process that is underway and that includes their consultations with First Nations." But Gravelle noted he couldn't "put a time period on it."

As for the Mining Commissioner's decision dealing with land rights for the road, Gravelle said that is an independent process in which he has no say.

When CBC News asked Tony Clement, the federal minister in charge of the Ring of Fire to comment on the concerns about the delay in the federal environmental assessment, he issued the following written statement:

"This decision was made by a private company. Our Conservative government is focused on working with all stakeholders to ensure the potential of the Ring of Fire becomes a reality. We will continue to work with all levels of government, First Nations and other stakeholders to help maximize the economic opportunities for northern Ontarians."