Can the Sault plug into Ring of Fire potential? – by Dan Bellerose (The Sault Star – May 24, 2011)

The Sault Star is the daily newspaper in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and is owned and operated by Osprey Media.

It has the potential to be one of the most significant mineral developments in Ontario in over a century.

Think of what the discovery of nickel meant to Sudbury, and gold to Red Lake and Timmins, that is the potential of the remote mineral-rich Ring of Fire in the James Bay Lowlands, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

It’s a vast deposit of more than 5,100 square kilometres of chromite, copper, zinc, gold and kimberlite and communities throughout Northern Ontario are scrambling to make themselves known to the development’s major players.

Cliffs Natural Resources, known in these parts as the primary iron-ore supplier of Essar Steel Algoma, wants to begin mining and processing a world-class chromite deposit within The Ring within five years, by 2015. NorOnt Resources is looking at a similar startup timeline for mining and processing nickel, copper, platinum and palladium ore.

They are the region’s pioneers, the most advanced of The Ring’s opportunities, both having invested more than $150 million already into exploration, preliminary study and assessment, with no guarantee of sinking a shaft or opening a pit.

“It’s remote with significant infrastructure challenges but it’s a world-class chromite deposit,” states Cliffs on its website trumpeting the project.

The challenges include the region only being accessible by aircraft at present, hundreds of kilometres of railways and roadways need to be constructed, as well as campsites, power generation and processing mills.

“We are watching and listening but it’s still too early in the process to determine if, or how, Sault Ste. Marie could be a player in the Ring of Fire,” said Tom Dodds, recently appointed CEO of the Sault Economic Development Corp.

According to the province, says Dodds, “it will be a couple more years before hard decisions are made . . . there is still enormous uncertainty on how to move forward.

“Government and developers are definitely interested but there are huge infrastructure issues.”

Dodds believes the Sault has several of attractive assets for mine developers looking for off-site production, value-added facilities, including location, Essar Algoma, loading docks and a skilled workforce, but in the meantime “will need to keep reminding the decision-makers why we should be given consideration.”

The “big prize” outside the Ring of Fire boundaries is Cliffs’ ferrochrome production facility and a minimum 400 good-paying employment opportunities.

Capreol, near Sudbury, is the preferred option for the ferrochrome plant at present but Cliffs is reportedly still evaluating several alternative sites because of the high cost of electricity in an electricity-intensive manufacturing process.

“If the price of electricity is an impediment I imagine the government could crunch numbers to make it more attractive, maybe offsetting costs in other areas, rather than lose the opportunity altogether,” said Dodds.

Cliffs plans to refine ore and concentrate into ferrochrome metal, a product sold to stainless steel producers, in an enclosed 300 megawatt electric furnace — 300 MW being enough electricity to power a city of 300,000.

The facility would have the capacity to produce1,500 tonnes of ferrochrome daily, along with 2,100 tonnes of slag.

Of 15 separate mineral deposits discovered within The Ring to date, including eight copper-zinc and five chromite, copper and chromite are the most significant development opportunities.

Chromite, which takes 3 billion years to form, is the ore component to chromium metal, used mainly as an alloy to produce stainless steel, and there is no significant North American high-grade chromite deposit, it usually comes from South Africa or Finland.

The value of the Ring of Fire chromite, according to one report, had one of five deposits worth $30 billion “still in the ground.”

The Cliffs’ vision is to begin with two open-pit mines, which they can work for 10 to 15 years, and then go underground for another 15 to 20 years.

It will need 260 kilometres of new road to access the site, which would accommodate a minimum 300 personnel, then large haul trucks, with 70-tonne capacity, would deliver ore and concentrate from the mine to the CN railhead at Nakina.

Between 50 and 100 heavy rucks would be on the road daily at peak production, say Cliffs officials, and there’s also hope of a nearly 350-km railway north of Nakina into the mine site.

Cliffs will need 30 MW of electricity to power the mine, processor and mine site, likely diesel, but the possibility exists of Cliffs and NorOnt, which needs 25 MW of power for its site, joining forces on a shared transmission system, which could also benefit remote First Nations.

NorOnt is talking one million tonnes of nickel, copper, platinum and palladium ore annually through underground mining at its site then processing it into 150,000 tonnes of concentrate.

The concentrate would be pumped through a 100-km underground pipeline to a processing site near Webequie, where a filtering and drying plant will be constructed to treat the concentrate the transfer it to trucks for transfer to a railhead site.

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