Ring of Fire Mining Practices Under Attack by Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

The following excerpts are from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2009/2010 Annual Report Redefining Conservation

Business News Network Anchor Reporter Andrew Bell interviews Ontario’s Environmental Comissioner Gord Miller (September 22, 2010) about the government’s conflicting goals of protecting half of the boreal forest while encouraging mine development in the red hot Ring of Fire in Northwestern Ontario: http://watch.bnn.ca/commodities/september-2010/commodities-september-22-2010/#clip351264

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

5.1.2. Ring of Fire: Illegal Construction of Mining-related Projects

The Ring of Fire is a roughly 5,120 square kilometre crescent-shaped area of Ontario’s boreal forest that has been subject to intense claim staking, prospecting and exploration ever since copper and zinc were discovered in the area in the late 1990s. After a flurry of exploration activity, the area is now known also to contain nickel, gold, diamonds and potentially the single largest source of chromite in North America. Interest in chromite is extremely high as it is used to make stainless steel. Chromite is also a strategic mineral used in the production of missile components and armour plating. A U.S. mining company reportedly intends to invest approximately $800 million (US) to develop a large open pit mine to extract high-grade chromite near McFauld’s Lake in the Ring of Fire. In March 2010, the Premier noted that this find is the “most promising mining opportunity in Canada in a century.”

In September 2009, a company submitted an application to MNR seeking approval to construct a mining camp and permanent airstrip 18 km west of McFauld’s Lake. The proponent sought permission to develop 81 hectares of Crown land to build an 1,830-metre airstrip, four helicopter pads, a fuelling area, storage facilities and staff accommodations. The key approvals process for this proposed project is the Class Environmental Assessment (Class EA) for MNR Resource Stewardship and Facility Development Projects. Under this approvals process, the proposal was evaluated as a “category B” project in which there is the “potential for low to medium negative environmental effects, and/or public or agency concern.”

Several days after the Class EA process began, MNR staff flew over the site to inspect it. To their surprise, the proponent had already cleared the forest and constructed the mining work camp and airstrip, which appeared to be in active use. MNR halted the Class EA process and issued a warrant under the Public Lands Act to stop the unauthorized occupation and use of Crown land. MNR then began investigating whether any other laws had been broken.

MNR allowed this Class EA process to be re-started in mid-October 2009. In its revised application, the proponent stated that it had autonomously decided to begin construction of the airstrip because of delays in the initiation of the Class EA process. The proponent noted that in making this decision, it had considered the project’s impact on the environment to be no different or greater than that created by exploration activities and the development of mining camps and access trails in the area.

Although the approvals process for this project falls under MNR’s Class EA, the proposed project is directly tied to mineral development and is situated on Crown land staked under the Mining Act. This case, therefore, raises the serious question of what role MNDMF, the lead ministry for the Ontario government’s one-window coordination process for mineral development, is taking to oversee mining-related development in the Ring of Fire.

The purpose of the “One Window” Coordination Process is to provide “an efficient, transparent and timely process for the review, permitting and approval of new mineral development projects.” This one-window policy states that the ministry will screen projects for their “potential regulatory components and complete an assessment of the scope of multi-ministry involvement based upon discussions with the Proponent.” This process is intended to be applied to projects: requiring multiple permits and/or approvals; requiring the involvement of more than one participating ministry; or triggering a requirement for processes under the Environmental Assessment Act. Given that MNR needed to step in and shut down the illegal construction of the airstrip and work camp, it is reasonable to assume that MNDMF did not apply the one-window policy in this case.

This case raises the possibility that other proponents in the Far North also may not have obtained the necessary approvals from the Ontario government. The basis for this concern is further evidenced by MNR shutting down another Ring of Fire airstrip in February 2010 that had been constructed without authorization. In these types of cases, the ECO believes that the Ontario government has no choice but to take legal action in order to underscore the point that proponents must comply with Ontario’s laws.

5.1.3 Ring of Fire: Using Mining Claims to Plan the Far North

In the summer and fall of 2009, an unusual pattern of mining claims were staked in northern Ontario. Two long north-south lines of mining claims (see Figure 1), each stretching hundreds of kilometres, were staked leading from the Ring of Fire (see box on page ##). It has been widely reported that these linear corridors of staked claims will be used to develop a railway line to a future open pit mine that will extract high-grade chromite.
[[Figure 1. Staked mining claims are depicted in dark green. The solid blue square identifies the staked claims in the Ring of Fire. The dashed red circle identifies the area containing two linear corridors of mining claims that were purportedly staked to secure lands for a railway. (Source: MDNMF CLAIMaps. Date: May 17, 2010)]]

The ECO is concerned that the staking of hundreds of kilometres of Crown lands for a rail corridor abuses the intended purpose of mining claims. Unfortunately, the Mining Act is ambiguous on this matter, stating only that lands, surface and mining rights issued under the Act are to be used solely for “mining purposes” and that staked claims are to be used as “mining land” or for another purpose of the “mineral industry.”

Furthermore, the ECO believes that the staking of claims to build a rail corridor circumvents the appropriate approvals process: MNR’s Class Environmental Assessment (Class EA) for MNR Resource Stewardship and Facility Development Projects. Unlike the process of staking mining claims, the Class EA process assesses alternatives and examines impacts of proposed projects with the possibility of rejecting a proposed project due to unnecessary environmental impacts. Obtaining land for a project by staking mining claims essentially predetermines the project’s location and, thereby, nullifies a core purpose of conducting an environmental assessment: to assess site alternatives. Moreover, it ignores the fact that other permits and considerations, such as potential impacts on species at risk, may be necessary before the project’s location is determined.

Under still-to-be proclaimed amendments to the Mining Act, claim staking and the opening of a new mine in the Far North will be prohibited if there is no community-based land use plan for the area, or if the land use designation is “inconsistent” with mineral exploration and development. Because pre-existing mining claims are unaffected by designations in community-based land use plans, the case of the staked rail corridors illustrates that staking could be used to essentially supersede future attempts at Far North land use planning. Using the Mining Act to secure possible rail corridors takes these Crown lands off the table for any possible protection based on their cultural or ecological significance. As such, it would be possible under the auspices of the Mining Act for a proponent with sufficient resources to “plan” or pre-determine many land uses in the Far North before the government and local communities develop land use plans. Moreover, map staking and the allowing of claim holders to pay fees in lieu of on-the-ground assessment work could, depending on the systems developed in regulations, make it even easier for wealthy companies to stake and retain claims that conflict with effective land use planning.

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) recommends that the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry consult on safeguards to ensure that electronic map staking is not misused as de facto land use planning in the Far North.