Michael Barnes is the author of more than fifty books about characters, communities, mining, and police work. He is a Member of the Order of Canada and makes his home in Haliburton, Ontario, Canada. While living in Northern Ontario most of his life, he has come to know and admire those who make their living in the mining industry.
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Ontario’s Ring of Fire Discovery
As the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada Convention came to a close in March 2008, a group of industry influentials crowded the Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel in Toronto for a luncheon to benefit Mining Matters, the mining education charity.
While they waited for the event to begin, a scratchy version of the stirring Johnny Cash song was played over the public address system. The fundraiser was in aid of charity, but the draw beyond the lunch was a claim-staking venture in the remote James Bay Lowlands, which was initiated in the late 1990s, and the events that followed. The series of properties that sparked the interest was dubbed — some say by Rob Cudney — “The Ring of Fire” because when it was further explored, the target area had the distinct shape of a broken circle or crescent with an original source as magma or molten rock from huge volcanic action.
The Cash song was really about love, but this mining play with the potential to create huge wealth for Canada and the expected much needed jobs and spinoff economic activity conjures up a mixture of emotions. The origin of the interest in the area came when two junior companies, Spider Resources and KWG Resources searched as a team for diamonds in 1997–98. They had optioned promising targets to De Beers, and one of these kimberlite targets was drilled and unexpectedly turned up evidence of copper and zinc. De Beers gave up on the target, as it was concentrating on property to the east that would eventually become the Victor Mine. This decision paved the way for the two juniors to act on data obtained from surveys flown by the Canadian Geological Survey back in the 1950s. The results suggested that beneath the swamps, despite the lack of outcrops in an area that originally appeared of little promise to prospectors, there might be mineralized Archean greenstone belts.
At the time of the discovery, there was but a bare ripple of interest in the Spider find, due mainly to the remote location centred in the area of a place called McFauld’s Lake. The location is 600 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay and lacks infrastructure of any kind.
The nearest settlements are two First Nations Reserves. Webequie is an Anishinini word meaning “shaking head,” which is just what planners are doing in trying to work out ways to access the discovery site. This settlement of 642 people is sixty kilometres to the west, but is itself isolated and without even a winter ice road to the Pickle Lake road. Another bet was Ogoki Post or Marten Falls, which is 150 kilometres to the south but has an all-season road under construction to connect with the Canadian National Railway at Nakina. The cost of road building to connect the deposit site with Marten Falls would be huge, but likely provincial and federal levels of government could become involved, due to the depressed nature of the area and the need to provide roads and power sources.
The logistics of bringing the product of possible base metals, platinum, and diamond mines have not deterred mining companies from taking ground in the area and working to define its economic potential. Frank Smeenk, president of KWG Resources, one of the companies with holdings at McFauld’s Lake, has put the land area into perspective, saying, “. . . this Ring of Fire crescent is about the same land area as the Abitibi Greenstone Belt, which includes Timmins, Kirkland Lake, Noranda and Val d’Or,” the origin of a substantial chunk of the mining wealth of Canada. One industry commentator has estimated that the area deposits would have to contain material to the value of $20 billion to justify infrastructure costs enabling a production start-up in the area. To be shipped on a regular basis, concentrates from any development would require an all-weather access road or rail link.
The original group of companies working or involved in the remote area of muskeg and glacial gravels has expanded to twenty, and the developing ore bodies have attracted the interest and commitment of Cliffs Natural Resources, a huge American iron ore pellet producer. In addition to KWG and joint venture partner Spider Resources, there are original pioneers in exploration Noront Resources, Freewest Resources Canada, and MacDonald Mines Exploration. Drilling by these companies has revealed diamondiferous kimberlite, nickel-copper-platinum-palladium mineralization, and, in 2006, the discovery of high-grade chromite created the greatest buzz in mining circles. Chromite, when smelted into ferrochromium alloys, is used in the production of stainless steel. Interest in this product is high because there is only one small chromite mine in North America, and the potential of this discovery would greatly reduce dependence on overseas sources, mainly South Africa.
Part 2 of 6 – To be continued