Sudbury

Ring of Fire was 'overhyped,' but still 'worth the effort' says Noront Resources

It's been ten years since the Ring of Fire first hit the headlines and mining has yet to begin in the remote mineral cluster in northwestern Ontario. Some blame government delay, others say there was too much hype.

Current plan is for construction of mine to start in 2021 and to open in 2024

An aerial view of Noront's Esker Camp in the Ring of Fire. The company hopes to have a mine in production in the remote region by 2024. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

In the spring of 2010, a place called "The Ring of Fire" was mentioned in the provincial budget speech.

In the months that followed, the Ontario government talked up the remote mineral cluster as the next big thing, maybe even as big as the Sudbury or Timmins mining camps.

In 2012, a company called Cliffs Natural Resources announced plans to mine chromite in the Ring of Fire and process it at a new smelter to be built north of Sudbury. It was all supposed to be up and running by 2015

"I always thought the timelines people were putting out were way too short," says Garry Clark, president of the Ontario Prospectors Association.

"The politicians were treating it as if you were walking through the muskeg and came to a little hill and crawled up on your belly and looked over top of the hill there's a mine sitting there just waiting for the road and it's not like that at all because there's no infrastructure there at all. There's just a bunch of drill holes in the ground and that's all there is." 

Since then, the Ring of Fire has become a story of delay, with political parties blaming each other for not getting the access road built and the mines up and running.

"Like with anything that is overhyped, people are usually disappointed," says Alan Coutts, CEO of Noront Resources, which is now the main player in the Ring of Fire.

Noront is now looking to develop the same chromite deposit Cliffs once owned, plus several other chromite and nickel properties in the area, with the hope of starting construction in 2021, pulling out the first minerals in 2024 and the building of a new smelter in Sault Ste. Marie to process the ore in 2025. 

"If these were just kind of so-so projects you might ask 'Is this really going to happen?' The projects are so good that it's worth all this effort to get them up and running," Coutts says.

"The underlying value of the projects is astounding."

Alan Coutts is the president and CEO of Noront Resources. (Bienvenu Senga/Radio-Canada)

Coutts says he's encouraged to see new claims being staked in the Ring of Fire, because for the past few years, his company has been one of the only ones operating in the remote region.

Clark says without road access, it's too expensive for individual prospectors or even most junior mining companies to work in the remote and swampy area and most pulled out a few years ago. 

"They were finding things and they played the stock market and were able to raise some money that way, but now it's kind of stagnated and there's no juniors that can afford to work up there," he says.

Four possible routes for an access road are being studied now, with the side benefit of connecting isolated First Nations to the provincial highway network in the south. 

Jim Franklin, formerly of the Geological Survey of Canada, says the Ring of Fire is one of the most remote deposits a mining company has attempted to develop in Canadian history.

While mines have been opened in some very remote parts of the country, geoscience consultant Jim Franklin, formerly of the Geological Survey of Canada, says the Ring of Fire is one of the boldest attempts to mine a hard-to-get-to deposit.

"That's 300 kilometres from anywhere," says Franklin. 

"Given the remoteness and the distance and the physical nature of what has to be conquered, the challenge in getting the resources out of the Ring of Fire has not really been matched in Canada in its history."

On the politics of mining, Sudbury New Democrat MPP Jamie West, who worked in the industry for years, believes people at Queen's Park were thinking that opening a mine is just like opening a car plant in southern Ontario.

"That it's the same as any industrial site, you just put a shovel in the ground and that's the end of the day," he says.

"I think trying to run the northern project with a downtown Toronto mentality isn't the right method."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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