COMMENT: Cliffs abandons Ring of Fire – by Marilyn Scales (Canadian Mining Journal – November 21, 2013)

Marilyn Scales is a field editor for the Canadian Mining Journal, Canada’s first mining publication. She is one of Canada’s most senior mining commentators.

Cliffs Natural Resources, the American miner that was so hot to gain control of chromite deposits in Ontario’s Ring of Fire, is packing up and going home.

The news release is an understatement: “The technical project work including feasibility study, development and exploration activities are being halted and there is no restart date planned.”

In practical terms, Cliffs is closing its Toronto and Thunder Bay, ON, offices as well as the exploration camp. That leaves employees without an employer, although the company did offer to help find jobs elsewhere in the company for some of those affected.

Cliffs has had an uncomfortable relationship with local First Nations, provincial authorities and other explorers working in the Ring of Fire. Readers may wonder if the company had any understanding of how to deal co-operatively with First Nations or if it thought it could overlook their participation. The Ontario government has been in hot water for years for ignoring its obligations to facilitate consultation between aboriginals and explorers. Cliffs halted its environmental assessment of the site last May, saying in effect that the province and First Nations are too difficult to deal with.

The latest squabble is over the construction of a road or a railroad to transport concentrate to market. Cliffs favours the road option because it is cheaper to build. Neighbour KWG Resources, through whose claims such a road would run, favours a railroad. Despite a higher initial capital cost, a railway offers significant cost savings in maintenance over the decades the mines would operate.

There are many good reasons to mine in Canada and to entrench benefits for aboriginal communities. Cliffs could learn through the impact benefits accord process how to include local communities and give them lifelong skills. Cliffs could take the lead in negotiating with its neighbours, rather than decry the government for not stepping in and giving it what it wants. Cliffs could stop being penny wise and pound foolish about transportation.

In this week when the federal government introduced anti-bullying legislation, readers may have schoolyard disputes on the brain, but they can be forgiven if Cliffs’ actions remind them of a child picks up his ball and goes home when he can’t have his way.