Province must settle this [Ring of Fire] dispute – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial (September 22, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

A BUSINESS dispute over access to the Ring of Fire mineral belt has escalated to the point where the major player now claims the future of the entire development is threatened. Boardroom machinations are common in business but this goes far beyond a private enterprise spat. Determining how best to bring heavy chromite ore out of a vast tract of muskeg goes to the heart of a mining prospect so rich it stands to transform the moribund Northern Ontario economy and help the province itself recover economically.

So this impasse cannot be allowed to stand. It has to be solved and the province, as governor of mining activity, is the only party that can do it if lengthy court action is to be avoided. So far, however, Ontario has kept its hands off the dispute. That, too, cannot last.

Cliffs Natural Resources and KWG Resources cannot get past a tiff over land control. KWG’s search for diamonds led to the discovery of a mother lode of chromite, essential to stainless steel-making. It and Cliffs, a much bigger company, wound up partners but Cliffs eventually acquired a KWG partner and became the dominant Ring player intent on developing its Black Thor project including a road to bring ore out.

The road, using a desirable ridge of high ground seen as the key transportation corridor out of the Ring, would pass over some KWG claims. KWG remains fixed on its Big Daddy deposit and proposes instead a railroad.

Cliffs’ application to traverse KWG claims wound up before a provincial tribunal. The Ontario Mining and Lands Commissioner has ruled against Cliffs which on Friday insisted it sees no conflict between its proposed north-south access road and KWG’s “legitimate” uses of its claims along the way.

Cliffs believes KWG is using its claims as an excuse to retain control of what Cliffs calls a “stranglehold” over the high ground out of the boggy Ring. KWG told the commission it sees Cliffs as trying to expropriate its claims.

If that is at the heart of their dispute, then a legal solution should be relatively easy. Cliffs must agree to allow KWG to test its bore holes along the proposed road easement for minerals. If proven deposits are suitably rich, the road route must be altered — something Cliffs claims it has already offered to do. If not, the proposed 12-metre-wide road can be used by all mining interests in the region and nearby First Nations since Ontario intends to pay for most of it. KWG proposes a rail partnership with the federal government.

Maybe KWG’s idea for a railroad is better. Maybe a road would allow for transportation of material to build a railroad. Maybe the ridge isn’t wide enough for both roads. These are questions for independent analysis which the province should oversee. Unfortunately, the government intentionally played no role in the commission hearing. Though initially included as a party to the proceeding, the Ministry of Natural Resources made no filings and took no position, though it had already advised Cliffs of the need to obtain the consent of affected mining claim holders before it could grant an easement. Asked what role it wished to assume, MNR said it had no wish to participate formally and attended only as observers.

“In fact, no representative from any government ministry requested party status,” the commission pointedly notes in its ruling.

Perhaps MNR could have in effect mediated this matter as a party to it. Ontario has the overriding authority here but the tribunal found no evidence “that there is indeed a public component to the application for an easement or even that the public has an interest in the actual road.”

The public interest in a route out of the Ring of Fire is enormous. This dispute is merely the latest delay in the development and the province has an obligation to step in and protect that interest by helping to forge an agreement.