Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
WHILE no one should minimize implications of the indefinite departure of Cliffs Natural Resources from the Ring of Fire mining belt, other players remain in place and with them, other possibilities.
Cliffs is the biggest and its plan to mine chromite would lead the list of depositors in the Ontario treasury. But its former partner and chief rival for chromite remains willing to propose an alternative to the transportation corridor that it and Cliffs both claim as essential to their plans — and those of every other mining interest in the vast region of mineral deposits.
So far, most attention has focused on Cliffs’ proposal for an all-weather road from its central property to a railhead near Nakina. From there, ore would be shipped on existing railways for processing.
KWG Resources makes the case for a railroad over the same ground. And the route is important since it is about the only high ground in a sea of muskeg.
KWG has staked claims along the route and Cliffs asked a provincial authority for permission to build its road over them. Denial of its application was one of the reasons Cliffs cited for announcing suspension of its operations and closure of offices in Thunder Bay and Toronto, along with deep uncertainty over clear rules for required negotiations with First Nations.
Cliffs has said the ability for First Nations residents to build access roads to its road is a key reason for the province to support its road proposal. For the first time, those residents would be able to drive to and from their homes and save considerably on the cost of shipping goods to their communities which now must be flown in or, in some cases, trucked on temporary winter roads.
KWG argues it can accommodate the same people by putting flatcars on its ore trains for their personal vehicles and passenger cars for them to ride to Nakina.
KWG estimates that ore from its and Cliffs’ chromite deposits would require 200 trucks per day to move it south on a road. Add in Noront Resources’ ore — that company, too, has signalled it remains all in the Ring — and the number rises to 440 trucks per day, KWG says — more when other mines are included.
The road would quickly reach its capacity, strangle development and possibly crowd out room for personal vehicles is KWG’s contention, whereas its railroad could handle all the ore that will be produced.
What’s more, KWG plans to fund the railroad privately while Cliffs wants the province to help fund a road, which Ontario has agreed to.
(For its part, Noront proposes an east-west road from its nickel-copper-platinum property in the Ring of Fire to Pickle Lake.)
Are there drawbacks in a private railroad over a public road? Potentially, it could be restricted by the owners on any number of fronts, though KWG has said it would be available to all.
There are benefits to both proposals, but neither KWG nor Cliffs has been willing to compromise on the essential route.
This presents the province and its Ring of Fire development corporation with yet another challenge to getting what should be the economic salvation of the North under way. But it must begin to do what the provincial government has so far avoided doing. It must get decisive and force issues into solutions and ultimately into opportunities for all concerned. The status quo is no longer an option.