Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. This article was published in the January, 2011 issue.
For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery
“Mining companies from Canada think nothing of establishing social programs for poor communities in Brazil or South Africa. They hesitate in Canada. As a Canadian, I’ve got a problem with that. I think it’s an obligation for us as Canadians to help the First Nations get out of this welfare state and start (helping them) develop and become self-sufficient in developing community jobs.” – Noront CEO Wes Hanson
Noront Resources has subterreanean plan for Ring of Fire
A leading junior nickel and chromite miner in the Ring of Fire wants to establish a light environmental footprint in the James Bay region.
Wes Hanson, Noront Resources’ president and chief executive officer, laid out his company’s impressive conceptual plans before a receptive audience of businesspeople and mining suppliers in Sudbury in late November.
While their McFauld’s Lake rivals, Cliffs Natural Resources and KWG-Canada Chrome, are mapping out ambitious plans for an open pit chromite mine and railroad in the Far North, Noront Resources’ development concept is positively subterreanean.
The Toronto miner has preliminary plans for a massive underground complex beneath the swamps of the James Bay Lowlands. With no operating mines to produce a steady flow of cash, Noront is focused on minimizing costs and is determined not to damage one of the world’s largest wetlands.
Noront is eyeballing a mine, mill and tailings storage facility that are completely underground. There will be no headframe on surface. “The goal is to build a mine you can walk over and not even know it’s there,” said Hanson.
Noront is the largest landholder in the Ring with 120,000 hectares under exploration, centred around its flagship Eagle’s Nest deposit, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. As a strictly fly-in, fly-out venture, the boggy terrain is challenging to explore and develop.
“It’s not uncommon to see your diamond drilling contractor standing up to their waists in water, finishing a hole,” said Hanson.
Noront wants to turn a winter road into an all-season road from Pickle Lake north to the remote community of Webequie. In their scenario, an 80-kilometre transmission line would supply power into the mine from a proposed Webequie generating station.
A slurry pipeline would transport concentrate from the mine site to a filter and drying plant in the community. Trucks, or possibly an extended pipeline, would carry the material 300 kilometres south to a Canadian National railhead.
Hanson said a pipeline is more efficient, less environmentally damaging and cheaper to operate than a railroad, which he estimates would cost $10 million per kilometre to build. He estimates their entire pipeline-power line-road project could be in the $300-million range.
But Hanson cautioned that it’s only a preliminary assessment and upcoming engineering studies will prove up the economics. “That pipeline could be 300 kilometres long, or there’s no pipeline.”
With the province’s Ring of Fire Secretariat Christine Kaszycki in attendance, Hanson strongly hinted that the Ontario government needs to provide some investment to offset their development costs.
“It represents an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed by the province,” said Hanson, who mentioned Premier Dalton McGuinty’s reference to the Ring of Fire in last spring’s throne speech.
“Hopefully by saying, that he’ll build me a road and get me up there.”
Later in an interview, Hanson said it’s unreasonable to expect mining companies to invest in building roads into remote communities to reach their nearby project sites.
“Borrowing money for infrastructure is very tough for any mining company.”
The company is tapping into Northern Ontario expertise to advance its high-grade nickel-copper and chromite deposit in the James Bay region.
Noront has assembled an all-star management and consulting team from North Bay and Sudbury, including mine builders Cementation, environment and engineering firms like Knight-Piesold and Golder Associates, and leading mining automation expert, Greg Baiden of Penguin Automated Systems.
Baiden said fully automated mines with underground milling have been built in other global operations, but have not been attempted in Canada. The costs can be “substantially less” than using conventional methods, he said, though it’s too early in the planning process to quote a price for Noront.
“It can all be placed underground quite easily. If you want to make this as green an operation as possible, you want to minimize your environmental footprint on surface,” said Baiden. “The whole objective of this mining and processing operation is to have minimal disturbance.”
He said automation can solve the challenge of finding skilled workers by operating with fewer people that are not directly on-site. It also realizes maximum efficiencies in getting the biggest value out of an ore body.
As a friend of Baiden for 25 years, Hanson said he’s familiar with his capabilities. “This is one of the smartest men in the world and it’s never a bad thing to surround yourself with smart people.”
As part of its social agenda, Noront has put extra effort into establishing trust with area Aboriginals by forming a First Nations advisory board.
The company has set up bursaries for post-secondary education, held career fairs for First Nations youth and funded school trips to Sudbury. “I’ve worked all over the world for Canadian companies,” said Hanson.
“Mining companies from Canada think nothing of establishing social programs for poor communities in Brazil or South Africa. They hesitate in Canada. As a Canadian, I’ve got a problem with that. I think it’s an obligation for us as Canadians to help the First Nations get out of this welfare state and start (helping them) develop and become self-sufficient in developing community jobs.”