Rails to Riches in the Ring of Fire – by Edgar J. Lavoie

This article was orginally published in Northern Ontario Business on April 19, 2010. Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investers with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

A man from North Carolina is standing on the north bank of the frozen Ogoki River in Northern Ontario. His job is to find bedrock that could support a bridge foundation for a Class 3 heavy-haul railway. The railway, currently under feasibility review, would transport 4 million tonnes of chromite every year from the Ring of Fire to the CN mainline near Nakina.

On Feb. 19, Colin Langford, geologist, is overdressed for the weather -2C. The sun is shining, the sky is clear. As the crew extracts two-inch rock core from the drill hole, Langford identifies the rock. “Granite,” he says. Good solid stuff.

Matthew Krzewinski, field program manager for Golder Associates, has dropped from the sky to check on the work. A helicopter is the transport of choice in this country. The company is performing geotechnical drilling on the proposed route.

Only a third of the 340-kilometre route runs through the rock, sand, and gravel of the Canadian Shield. The James Bay Lowlands, in which the Big Daddy chromite discovery is located, is wet – a wilderness of lakes and bogs. KWG Resources Inc. (TSX-V: KWG), in joint venture with Spider Resources Inc. (TSX-V: SPQ), created a subsidiary to do feasibility studies for a railway. In turn, Canada Chrome Corp. engaged Krech Ojard & Associates, PA, of Duluth, who hired Golder Associates, also of Duluth, with support from offices throughout Canada and the USA.

The night before, project officials had addressed a public meeting in Nakina, one of the communities of the Municipality of Greenstone. M.J. “Moe” Lavigne, vice-president/exploration and development for KWG Resources, stated that mine infrastructure would include a 150-person camp, a power transmission line, and an all-weather airport. The railway would transport heavy equipment north to develop the mine and bring ore south. A decision had yet to be made about the location of the concentrator: at the northern or the southern terminus of the railway.

Nels J. Ojard, PE, project manager for the Krech Ojard firm, pointed out that the proposed route had 89 water crossings, ranging from tiny streams to major rivers. The longest of the 50 bridges will span the Attawapiskat River for about 350 metres. At each significant waterway, an ice-bridging crew assembles to prepare a crossing for the drill team and heavy equipment. Three workers shovel the snow off, make holes with ice augers to check the thickness, and build up snowbanks to contain the water which is pumped up to flood the surface. Two such crews are operating during daylight hours. A helicopter transports them between waterways, and to and from a remote base camp for the night.

At the Ogoki River site, the track-mounted drill rig, a CME 850 machine, had begun boring the first hole around noon. The geologist, Langford, planned two holes on either side of the crossing, and two holes in the river bed. Each hole would reach a depth of 10 to 50 feet (American nationals tended to use Imperial units of measurement). For the 110-metre crossing, with spans of 30 metres, perhaps 4 spans would be required.

Nels Ojard told the writer that come spring, crews would implement remedial measures in the riparian zones. Banks would be consolidated and any debris removed from the waterway. Moe Lavigne explained that waterways had a minimum 120 metres of protective reserves on either side. Three rivers – the Little Current, Albany, and Attawapiskat – are Provincial Waterway Parks, with reserves of 200 metres per side. The Ministry of Natural Resources has issued permits to govern the work process.

The writer had joined the project officials for a helicopter flight that morning. The Eurocopter AS 350B-2 left the Nakina airport at 9 a.m.. The “alignment”, as the officials call the proposed route, began a few kilometres west of Nakina. The first few miles paralleled existing logging roads. On a GPS unit, one traced the route by the waypoints (which showed as little flags on the tiny screen). Waypoints to the side of the alignment marked locations for potential construction materials (sand, gravel, rock).

Drilling crews would be sampling the soil and rock later in the winter season, in March and April.

The focus in January and February had been to complete the geotechnical drilling in the mid and northern sections of the alignment. South of the Albany, crews from Aroland First Nation were cutting trails. “The trail system,” said Lavigne, “is put in specifically to provide access for Nodwells.” A Nodwell is a double-track, all-terrain vehicle on which a diamond drill or a hollow-stem auger can be mounted.

At 10:25 a.m., the chopper set down on a tiny prepared clearing in the land of little sticks. The party disembarked and walked a few metres through ankle-deep snow to the drill pad. Ten minutes before, the party had overflown the Albany. In the trackless James Bay Lowlands, a more powerful chopper, a Bell 407, had transported a small drilling rig to the pad (a tiny clearing) that morning. The rig was fitted with a hollow-stem auger with which to take soil samples.

All drill rigs in the project are supplied and manned by Paddock Drilling Ltd., based in Brandon, Man. The driller and his helper hailed from Brandon; the field logger, a young woman working for Golder Associates, from Winnipeg. A device called a split-spoon sampler retrieved an 18-inch drive sample from beneath the drill bit in undisturbed soil. The logger documented the sample after performing a couple of simple field tests for engineering characteristics, viz., bearing capacity and shear strength. Each sample would be bagged, labeled, and shipped to one of Golder Associates’ many laboratories. During the visit, the logger was documenting a sample of lacustrine clay, a material found in the bottom of a post-glacial lake.

Each bore hole targeted at least 15 feet of good material.

The story of how Krech Ojard & Associates located and is still validating the alignment is a saga in itself. The firm made history when it discovered an almost continuous series of glacial till ridges from just west of McFauld’s Lake, running south to the Shield country.

Environmental studies are scheduled to begin in the spring, and if a lot of things fall into place, construction could begin 18 months to two years after that. KWG Resources envisions an open pit mine operating in 2015.

Meanwhile, Canada Chrome and the Krech Ojard firm are staging public meetings and consulting with a number of First Nation communities and special interest groups. Route refinement continues; a plan, cross-sections, and profiles are being developed; costs will be calculated.

In such a major undertaking, one can expect glitches. At the Ogoki River site, it turns out that the ice bridge is strong enough to permit machines to cross, but not to permit a drilling operation. A crew will have to build a thicker bridge.