Ring of Fire engineering potential burns bright – Content Sponsored by Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (Toronto Star Insert – October 27, 2011)

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“Some people say this is proof that God is a mining engineer
because he put a chromite deposit up there, and then he laid
out a road for us.” (Moe Lavigne, Vice-president at KWG Resources)

Since the discovery of chromite was announced in northern Ontario in 2007 – nickel and copper were found three years earlier – engineers and miners have been looking at how to develop these deposits, which have been declared the most promising mining opportunity in Canada in a century.

But there’s a problem: the site is a vast subarctic muskeg bog in the remote James Bay Lowlands, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. For thousands of square kilometres, the terrain is difficult to walk on, let alone haul thousands of tonnes of heavy ore-with one lucky exception.

Railway expansion

A series of sand ridges that once ran along the shore of a postglacial lake follows the most direct route into the region near McFaulds Lake. They could become the foundation of a road and eventually a railway for a multi-generational mining play that’s often touted as rivalling the Sudbury Basin.

“Some people say this is proof that God is a mining engineer because he put a chromite deposit up there, and then he laid out a road for us,” says Moe Lavigne, a vice-president at KWG Resources, whose executive offices are in Toronto. The junior mining company is a minority partner in one of the chromite deposits, and its subsidiary holds the rights to the proposed rail route.

Despite the daunting terrain-the muskeg sits on top of a layer of wet clay, making construction even more difficult-engineers generally agree the problems of mining in the area can be overcome, as they have been elsewhere in Canada. The biggest challenge will be building the infrastructure that will provide a toehold in the wilderness, and doing it economically.

“If this project was located in an area that was more accessible-where infrastructure was available and so on-it would be relatively easy,” notes Feroz Ashraf. “But we never choose where to find these ores.” Ashraf is executive vice-president of global mining and metallurgy at SNC-Lavalin Group, which is leading the engineering studies for two mining companies.

The area was named Ring of Fire by a mining executive-and Johnny Cash fan-who was struck by the semicircular formation of the deposits. The big prize is the rich deposits of chromite, the only ones in North America. Chromite-an ore that is processed into ferrochrome, a key component in stainless steel-now comes mostly from South Africa, Kazakhstan and Finland.

Cliffs Natural Resources in Cleveland, Ohio, is the biggest player in the Ring of Fire, holding all of one big chromite deposit and most of another in which KWG is the partner. Cliffs, which is planning to be in production by 2015, forecasts that its mines could last decades.

Besides chromite, nickel and copper, the region also has deposits of zinc, platinum, palladium, vanadium and titanium. Toronto-based Noront Resources is developing a major nickel deposit.

Despite Cliffs’ ambitious schedule, a great deal of work needs to be done before anything comes out of the ground. Platoons of engineers are still working on early studies of the terrain and identifying technical problems. They will have to complete environmental studies to obtain mining permits. Mining and engineering companies have begun consultations to involve and reach agreements with the Aboriginal communities on traditional lands where development will take place.

SNC-Lavalin’s Ashraf estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of the cost of the development will be infrastructure: electricity; roads, bridges and airstrips; heavy equipment; housing, food and water supplies for hundreds of employees. “The logistics and moving things around is going to be the biggest challenge-planning and sequencing it,” he says. But this is far from the only challenge, and the engineers are looking at some interesting solutions.

Nels Ojard, a vice-president with consulting engineers Krech Ojard & Associates of Duluth, Minn., has been conducting early feasibility studies of the proposed railway. He points out that it has been 50 years since a line of comparable length has been contemplated in North America. It would be a $2-billion undertaking, running 340 kilometres north from the CN rail line near the town of Nakina. More than half the route is through lowlands and it will require 53 bridges over land and water, including the Albany and Attawapiskat rivers.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/specialsections/ospe/article/1076861–ring-of-fire-engineering-potential-burns-bright