Cliffs puts Ring of Fire project on hold – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – June 13, 2013)

Citing a list of holdups with its proposed Ring of Fire chromite project, Cliffs Natural Resources announced on June 12 it has suspended its environmental assessment (EA) for the $3.3 billion mine project.

Bill Boor, Cliffs senior vice president, told Wawatay News that the uncertainty over the federal EA process – given Matawa First Nations’ ongoing legal case calling for a Joint Review Panel assessment – played a significant role in Cliffs decision to halt the project.

“Cliffs wants to work with First Nations on how we’ll cooperatively make sure we have an assessment that works for all of us, so we can assess this project in the best possible way,” Boor said. “We haven’t reached an agreement on that, and one of the issues is the judicial review.”

Boor emphasized that the uncertainty over the federal EA process was only one reason Cliffs decided to temporarily suspend work on the project. He noted that Ontario has still not approved Cliffs’ terms of reference for the provincial EA, and that a number of agreements with the provincial government remain unfinished.

Cliffs’ has also not been granted access to land it requires for an all-weather road to the mine site, another issue that has stalled the project. A land dispute between Cliffs and KWG Resources is currently awaiting ruling from Ontario’s mining commissioner.

“At some point it becomes illogical to keep moving forward with anything if you don’t have access to the land you need, and you haven’t gotten the approval for the terms of reference,” Boor said.

Matawa First Nations filed a judicial review against the federal government in November 2011, calling for a Joint Review Panel assessment for Cliffs’ Ring of Fire project rather than the existing comprehensive review.

In a March 2013 ruling, a judge declared that Canada and Cliffs were causing “unnecessary delays” in the case and set strict timelines to bring the hearing before the courts.

A federal judge is expected to hear the judicial review in September. If Matawa wins the case, the current EA process would have had to start over as a Joint Review Panel.

Boor said he has heard from a number of chiefs that the First Nations are not fighting Cliffs over the EA, but rather raising the issue with the federal government.

He said that in his view, the judicial challenge adds an “adversarial” element to the situation that does not benefit anyone in the long run.

“What I’m hoping for is that we can collectively agree on how we want this assessment to work,” Boor said. “What I’d say to impacted communities is stop talking at a high level about the EA, and start talking at the level of detail of how we make this process work for both of us.

“We know we can’t do as good of a job without First Nations working with us, bringing their insight to the process,” Boor added. “I’d like to really get specific – what does a process look like that works for both of us so that we can assess this project? And if at the end of the day First Nations don’t support it, it is within their rights to speak out against it.”

First Nations leaders have argued that a Joint Review Panel would force the environmental assessment into the communities to hear testimonies in local languages, provide adequate timelines for the review and consider the impacts of more than one mine on the region.

“What we have now is a paper-based EA process, run completely outside of the communities affected, with no meaningful involvement of First Nations, and is non-transparent,” said Aroland Chief Sonny Gagnon in March 2013. “It needs to be made accessible, by holding hearings in the First Nations and using an independent panel.”

Boor noted that Cliffs will continue to work with impacted First Nations on negotiating “mutually acceptable agreements,” despite the EA being suspended.

He said there are many other issues to discuss, including employment opportunities, training and infrastructure needs, but that he is confident those will “fade into the background” once all the parties are comfortable with the project.

“We’re not going to be shortsighted on this project,” Boor said. “Cliffs plans to be involved in the region for a long, long time.”

Matawa First Nations issued a press release on June 12 saying that the chiefs will meet this week to discuss Cliffs’ announcement before determining their response.