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Ring of Fire, a mineral hotspot, poised to spark building boom

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by Saul Chernos

A railway, roads and mineral-processing facilities are in the cards within the next five years or so if northern Ontario’s latest mineral hot spot stays the course.
Ring of Fire, a mineral hotspot, poised to spark building boom

Industry outlook

A railway, roads and mineral-processing facilities are in the cards within the next five years or so if northern Ontario’s latest mineral hot spot stays the course. The 150-square-kilometre section of the James Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario is known as the Ring of Fire for good reason.

More than two dozen junior mining companies and at least one established senior are hoping to cash in on an area they believe is simply burning with high-grade nickel, copper, zinc, gold, chromite and palladium.

Toronto-based Noront Resources is one of the juniors. Company president and CEO Wes Hanson says prospectors and developers are currently focused on a 12-kilometre subset.

Significant preparatory work, environmental assessments and other feasibility studies must be done before mines can be built. But when that happens, Hanson says, this almost completely isolated region, in a huge wetland on the edge of Canada’s boreal forest, will need lots of work.

“It’s about 300 to 400 kilometres north of any existing permanent infrastructure,” Hanson says, adding that the nearest communities, including Marten Falls and Lansdowne House, are all fly-in.

“Currently, the only way to access it is with float planes. Noront’s personnel land on a lake approximately seven kilometres from our campsite and then take a helicopter to get there.”

Noront hasn’t built a dirt road for local access. The swampy terrain requires something much more sophisticated.

“It’s like the Florida Everglades,” Hanson explains.

“The land is super-saturated.”

Any transportation infrastructure that is built would depend on the nature of the projects. The markets for most minerals can usually be accommodated on a seasonal basis, and winter roads on ice and snow would likely suffice.

However, chromite mining would require a full-time railroad and smaller supporting roads because the mineral is used in stainless steel and suppliers need consistent, year-round supplies.

Several mining companies are considering a 320-kilometre rail line that would run from just west of Nakina, north of Lake Superior, to the Ring of Fire.

Canada Chrome, a subsidiary of KWG Resources, staked mining claims along one possible route in order to secure a right-of-way, and an engineering firm, Krech Ojard of Duluth Minnesota, is working on feasibility studies.

“We’re in the early process of evaluating the project,” says Nels Ojard, the firm’s group manager for special projects, adding that a field operation is likely five to seven years away.

Golder Associates is helping with field geotechnical work, and together the team is classifying soil conditions along the route to evaluate the capacity to support heavy ore-bearing trains.

“We cross a wide variety of landscape features,” Ojard says. Many areas are low, flat and very wet. However, a string of higher ridges, while discontinuous, contains heavier sand and gravels that would make construction easier.

Early plans call for more than 80 bridges and overpasses to cross swampy areas, and crews could use lightweight fills and even synthetic geotextile fabrics to support tracks.

“There’s a whole catalogue of options,” Ojard says. “It’s a matter of reviewing the geotechnical considerations and putting the right piece in the right place.”

Mines would also require significant processing infrastructure.

KWG Resources president Frank Smeenk says it’s too early to know if facilities such as crushers, concentrators, smelters and electric arc furnaces would be built on-site or somewhere outside the Ring of Fire, perhaps in Nakina or in some other larger centre where electricity is in good supply.

Mines don’t necessarily require much electricity — many do well with diesel generators — but processing plants, housing and other permanent facilities do need steady, higher amounts of power.

“In the fullness of time there will probably be a (power) line along the railroad,” Smeenk says, adding that the area might be able to draw surplus power from larger centres in the north.

“With the economic downturn in Ontario the demand for electricity has fallen out a bit, so there’s lots of power in Ontario,” Smeenk says. “The problem with it is the price is very high.”

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