VANCOUVER (miningweekly.com) – Following years of complex negotiations and several delays, the Ontario provincial government on Monday made the historic announcement that it would support and fund road proposals that will connect Northern Ontario’s far-flung First Nation communities and provide industrial road access to the emerging Ring of Fire (RoF) mining district.
A political hot potato since its discovery in 2002, the RoF’s rich ores are estimated to hold some C$60-billion in nickel/copper/platinum group metal (PGM) mineral wealth, a figure still touted by both the federal and provincial governments for years, albeit perhaps calculated at a time when metals prices were considerably higher.
Prospective miners in the region, together with resident First Nations, welcomed the announcement by Premier Kathleen Wynne.
“The entire RoF region has huge potential for development that would benefit all of the communities involved and the entire province – creating new jobs and improving the quality of life for people in the North. Getting shovels in the ground to build this connection to the RoF will move us forward towards unlocking its full potential,” Wynne said in a statement on Monday.
The significance of the announcement is that government has, for the first time, committed itself to a timeframe to get shovels in the dirt across vectors spanning the vast muskeg wastelands of Ontario’s Far North, instead of merely budgeting significant amounts, which it has done for several years.
The provincial government will backstop the construction of an east-west road connecting Webequie and Nibinamik First Nations, to the provincial highway network north of Pickle Lake. This road will continue from the community of Webequie eastwards, towards the vestal RoF.
The commitment further entails construction of a north-south community access road that is being planned for construction by the Marten Falls First Nation, with an option to expand the road to the RoF tied to the development of, and the business case for, chromite mining in the region.
An environmental assessment of both road projects is expected to start by January 2018, followed by construction in 2019 pending all necessary approvals.
"The success of the related project development in the RoF is dependent on the immediate implementation of the statement of joint commitments developed with the province to work with the community on various jurisdictional matters," said Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse in a statement.
Building the roads is a critical step in realising the economic benefits of one of the biggest mineral-development opportunities in Ontario in almost a century, the Ontario Liberal government said.
Since 2014, the government has budgeted C$1-billion for RoF-related infrastructure but, according to its Monday press release, it has only spent C$111-million since 2011, to help communities and tribal councils prepare for RoF development opportunities.
While the Ontario government is working with the Webequie, Marten Falls and Nibinamik First Nations to plan and construct the year-round access road, the biggest benefactor of the government support is TSX-V-listed Noront Resources, and its proposed Eagle’s Nest nickel/copper/PGM mine.
“Establishment of a road network with agreement on industrial access is our most important project advancement milestone, and we are very pleased to see it move ahead. We look forward to working closely with the province and First Nations communities through the road construction and mine development processes,” stated Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts in a press release.
The government timeframe allows for Noront to advance its pre-development work and ready itself for the three-year construction of its Eagle’s Nest mine. Noront's project, as well as other bulk-commodity projects focused on the RoF’s significant trove of high-grade chromite, will probably follow suit, pending the development of a north-south bulk transport corridor.
Noront is the largest landholder in the emerging mining district. Eagle’s Nest will be the company’s first project, with plans to use the planned east-west all-season road, while its future larger-scale chromite project will use the north-south road, allowing for bulk chromite ores to be moved to market.
Meanwhile, junior KWG Resources and its partners Bold Ventures and Fancamp Exploration, on Tuesday welcomed the provincial government’s announcement.
KWG Resources has undertaken to strike an equal partnership with the Marten Falls First Nation to kick-start infrastructure development in the remote emerging mining district. The company has also appointed a China-based consulting engineering group to undertake a conditional bankable feasibility study (BFS) on a proposed railroad from the mineral properties in the RoF to a junction with the CN Railroad at Exton, Ontario.
“We have offered to make the First Nations full partners in our railroad and mining operations. The announcement by Premier Wynne yesterday will enable us to formalise that partnership and assist Marten Falls with an environmental assessment of their joint access route,” noted KWG CEO Frank Smeenk.