Thunder Bay

Noront expects to see roads to Ring of Fire in the new year

Just this past summer Premier Kathleen Wynn announced that the provincial government is ready and willing to work with a handful of nearby communities to develop a year-round road access to the mineral-rich area.

Noront President and CEO Alan Coutts said a project description should be released in January 2018

An aerial view of the Esker Camp in the Ring of Fire. Just beyond Esker is the former Cliffs Natural Resources camp. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

It's no secret that the Ring of Fire development, located approximately 575 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., is expected to generate a significant amount of minerals, including nickel, copper and chromite.

And while the project has been stalled for some time due to the lack of road access, this past summer Premier Kathleen Wynn announced that the provincial government is ready and willing to work with a handful of nearby communities to develop a year-round road access to the mineral-rich area.

Noront President and CEO Alan Coutts said roads are needed in order to move this project forward as "assets are stranded there" otherwise.

He said when the Premier made her announcement in August of 2017, she chose a few nearby communities with road proposals in place — Marten Falls, Webequie, Nibinamik as well as Aroland — to facilitate an all-season road access into the region and connect the communities to Ontario's highway system.

In August of 2017 Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynn annouced the government will support three northwestern Ontario Frist Nations to develop a year-round road access. (Heather Kitching / CBC)

"So there's two road proposals that are being advanced," Coutts said, "the north-south road that's being advanced by Marten Falls and Aroland, and the south-west road that's being advanced by Nibinamik and by Webequie."

Traditionally, according to Coutts, when a mining project is started the company is usually the proponent of the road development. However, in this case, the province has asked the communities themselves to be the proponents, which means they'll be "deciding themselves what the road looks like, where it goes...and they will be doing the environmental assessments themselves," Coutts said.

However, that doesn't mean Noront is completely out of the loop.

With a lot of information based on work the company has done previously coupled with the environmental and engineering design data they acquired from the purchase of Cliff's Natural Resources in 2015, Coutts said Noront has "a lot of information that was gathered in those road corridors," that could help the communities throughout this process.

Reusing infrastructure for possible smelter

Currently, Coutts said Noront is visiting four northern Ontario cities that are interested in building a smelter in their city, one of them is Thunder Bay, Ont.

He said once the mining starts, a smelter will process the minerals and Noront will be able to "get the added value to make a feral chrome product," as well, which will get sold to stainless steel makers.

But rather than buying new materials and building a brand new smelter site, Coutts said Noront wants to see how these communities can re-purpose old infrastructures that are no longer in use.

The proposed all-weather roads (shown on this map in pink) would give these communities access to the Ontario highway system but also to the Ring of Fire. (CBC)

"There's so much idle infrastructure in northern Ontario that can be re-used," Coutts said

"It's good for the environment and it's also cheap; it saves money because you don't have to re-build those infrastructure pieces."

He said a project description that shows the details of where the roads will be placed will be released in the beginning of 2018 and "shovel's [will be] in the ground within that period," which means Noront will then finally be able to talk to investors to start financing the big project.