Thunder Bay

Cliffs’ excitement tinged with frustration in Ring of Fire

The man in charge of Cliffs Natural Resources Ring of Fire project says two things need to happen before the company's plans can proceed.

Vice-president outlines two key hurdles to feasibility

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.

The man in charge of Cliffs Natural Resources’ Ring of Fire project says two things need to happen before the company's plans can proceed.

In an exclusive interview with CBC News, Bill Boor said he's still waiting for a final agreement with the province to build a smelter in Sudbury and he said the company still needs to establish its surface rights to build a road to the mining area.

"The vision is very much intact," Boor said of the American company’s plans to mine chromite out of muskeg in the James Bay Lowlands.

"The mechanics of how to get there are very challenging and we expected that, but they continue to be challenging."

Smelter deal yet to be finalized

Boor said talks with the province to finalize plans to build a chromite smelter near Sudbury were delayed because of the election. He said company officials have yet to talk with representatives of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government.

"As we approach a year since the agreement in terms, that’s become more of a concern," Boor said of the plans to locate the smelter.

"Part of the uncertainty that lies right now is whether we’re going to be able to get in on time and get this deal done so that we can wrap up the feasibility study."

Cliffs’ was hoping to take the feasibility study to its board of directors this summer.

No ‘plan B’ for road to Ring of Fire

The other hurdle facing the company is the transportation route to the proposed mine site. Right now the site is only accessible by air. Cliffs has proposed an all-weather road.

But another mining company, KWG, has staked the most viable route and is planning a rail road.

The decision about who has the surface rights to the transportation corridor is before Ontario’s mining commissioner.

"I’ll tell you, this is so fundamental to the project that, while I always like to have plan Bs, this is an area where I really don’t," Boor said.

"We’ve done a lot of analysis about what we think works for the project — from both a technical and economic perspective and this all-weather road comes out as the best answer for the initial development .

"If we find that we’re not given a green light to go forward with that part of that project then we’ve really got a major stumbling block," he added.

Mediation possible on environmental assessment

Both the federal and provincial environmental assessments have also caused some controversy for Cliffs.

Boor said he is open to mediation on the terms of reference for the provincial environmental assessment, something requested by Neskantaga First Nation.

"These [environmental assessment] process issues ... need to be resolved so we can move forward," Boor said. "We're looking for whatever the most efficient way there is to resolve them."

All of this has Boor admitting he is a little frustrated.

He said Cliffs’ search for a partner in the project can’t go ahead in earnest until the hurdles are cleared and the feasibility is complete.

"There might be a hint of frustration," Boor said. "I guess I’d say that it’s combined with a little bit of excitement because we’ve spent three years getting to this point and now it is time for some of these things to get done."

Boor also said he’s optimistic about the potential for Liberal MP Bob Rae to get involved in negotiations between Matawa First Nations and the province about the Ring of Fire.