Excerpt from Ring of Fire: High-Stakes Mining in a Lowlands Wilderness – by Virginia Heffernan (March 27, 2023)

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A valuable discovery under the world’s second-largest temperate wetland and in the traditional lands of the Cree and Ojibway casts light on the growing conflict among resource development, environmental stewardship, and Indigenous rights

When prospectors discovered a gigantic crescent of metal deposits under the James Bay Lowlands of northern Canada in 2007, the find touched off a mining rush, lured a major American company to spend fortunes in the remote swamp, and forced politicians to confront their legal duty to consult Indigenous Peoples about development on their traditional territories. But the multibillion-dollar Ring of Fire was all but abandoned when stakeholders failed to reach a consensus on how to develop the cache despite years of negotiations and hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. Now plans for an all-weather road to connect the region to the highway network are reigniting the fireworks.

In this colorful tale, Virginia Heffernan draws on her bush and newsroom experiences to illustrate the complexities of resource development at a time when Indigenous rights are becoming enshrined globally. Ultimately, Heffernan strikes a hopeful note: the Ring of Fire presents an opportunity for Canada to leave behind centuries of plunder and set the global standard for responsible development of minerals critical to the green energy revolution.

EXCERPT: Ring of Fire – Geological Richness on a World-Class Supersize Scale – by Virginia Heffernan

Geologists now speculate that the only way Nemis’s ring could contain so much mantle-derived (or ultramafic) magma and metal is if some cataclysmic geological event, such as two continents colliding or separating, had cracked open the basement rocks….

Now cast your mind back 2.7 billion years. The crust is splitting apart just west of the current imprint of Hudson Bay. The crust is thinner and the core hotter than now, creating a lot of melted mantle with nowhere to go. So as soon as a rift opens up, the restless magma lets loose and ascends….

On its way to surface, the intense heat of these magmas partially melts the surrounding rocks, introducing sulphur into the mix. The sulphur readily combines with iron, nickel, copper, and platinum group elements (PGEs) in the magma to form distinct droplets.

Like oil and water, the sulphide droplets refuse to mix with the surrounding liquid. Instead, they gather together into ever larger droplets, becoming heavier and heavier and eventually sinking to the bottom of the magma chamber. As the magma flow slows, vertical cracks filled with liquid are frozen in time, forming feeder dikes richly concentrated in metals.

These concentrating factors make the metal grades of the “magmatic” Ring of Fire deposits high by international standards. The first one that would be mined, Eagle’s Nest, has grades averaging 1.7 percent nickel and 1 percent copper, with significant quantities of palladium, the shiny
silvery-white metal used in the catalytic converters of cars.

By comparison, one of the world’s largest undeveloped nickel sulphide deposits, the Dumont project in Quebec, has grades of about 0.27 percent nickel. Eagle’s Nest resembles a long skinny structure taller than two CN Towers but with a relatively tiny footprint at surface — hard to find but worth it when you do.

There are dozens more nickel-copper-PGE targets just like Eagle’s Nest in the Ring of Fire, and these long skinny dikes are just one part of a remarkable metal endowment deposited so long ago.
So cast your mind back again. Imagine the magma, while moving vertically, was also spreading in horizontal, tabular sheets called sills.

Here’s where the chromium crystallized and rained out in large volumes in separate but related deposits, which were given names such as Blackbird and Black Thor to reflect the dark colour and hardness of the massive chromite layers. This sill complex stretches for about 16 kilometres and is up to 1.5 kilometres thick.

The thickness of the chromite layers within the sills is globally exceptional, up to 100 metres, about the height of Big Ben. The grades are some of the highest, up to 35–40 percent chromium-oxide. To say the chromite deposits in the Ring of Fire are world class is clichéd but understated.

Finally, at the top of the geological sequence, above the vertical nickel-copper feeder dikes and horizontal chromite-rich sills, lie a series of copper-zinc deposits known as volcanogenic massive sulphide (VMS) deposits. The VMS deposits formed when bubbling hot magma heated seawater that had seeped through cracks under the seafloor (recall the ancient seas that washed over the area), causing it to circulate and dissolve metals in its wake.

Eventually this hot water erupted back onto the seafloor. The rapid cooling that ensued allowed the metals to form distinct lenses of high-grade copper-zinc mineralization. These VMS lenses tend to occur in clusters; explorers believe there are many more to be found in the Ring of Fire.

And although unsurprising, it was thrilling for geologists to later discover gold while on the hunt for chromium, nickel, copper, and zinc. They knew the Ring of Fire possessed many of the same characteristics as some of the world’s great gold camps, including the age of its rocks, an abundance of iron, and the presence of major faults and fold structures.

Younger sedimentary basins positioned next to older volcanic rocks looked suspiciously similar to the setting of the tremendously gold-rich Abitibi camp, about 750 kilometres to the southeast. Nevertheless, the actual discovery of the precious metal was happenstance in the Ring of Fire.

Accidental finds were to become a recurring theme in the camp: explorers looking for diamonds found copper and zinc instead; then they looked for copper and zinc and found nickel; looked for nickel and found chromite; looked for more of these metals and found gold. They were an indicator of just how extraordinary a mining camp, on a global scale, the Ring of Fire was turning out to be….

It’s hard to imagine another mining region with so many flavours. It’s like combining the rich diamond pipes of Botswana with the highgrade chromite layers of the Bushveld complex in South Africa and the nickel-copper deposits of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, then mixing in the copper-zinc lenses of Manitoba’s Flin Flon greenstone belt and the gold veins of the Abitibi: a Harrod’s fruitcake of richness on a supersized scale.

“The wide diversity of mineral deposit types in the McFaulds Lake greenstone belt, including world-class Cr [chromium], significant Ni-Cu-PGE [nickel-copper-platinum group metals], and potential Fe-Ti-V [iron-titanium-vanadium] mineralization related to mafic and ultramafic
rocks, make the Ring of Fire region an excellent exploration target to increase the world’s supply of critical minerals,” according to a Natural Resources Canada report on the region.

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