The Ring of Fire: Ontario's Mega Mining Project to be the "Next Fort McMurray"

Ring of Fire Chromite Mining Area

Ontario's largest mining find in decades – a 5000 square km region known as the Ring of Fire – won't be developed by Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources without facing significant obstacles.

We question whether the Ring of Fire can be mined without being a massive financial burden on Ontario taxpayers, or without trashing the province's most pristine watershed,” says Ramsey Hart, Canada program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, an Ottawa-based organization.

It is also unclear if this development will proceed in the best interests of the First Nations living in the Ring of Fire,” Hart told DeSmog Canada.

A briefing note to the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs from earlier this year warns that the Anishinaabe/Omushkego* (First Nations of the Ring of Fire) “are some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in all of Canada” and this could prevent the Anishinaabe/Omushkego from benefitting from the Ring of Fire mega mining project.

Stumbling Upon the Ring of Fire

The Ring of Fire is a proposed mining development the size of Prince Edward Island located in the Northern James Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario. The prize for the mining industry in Ring of Fire is “chromite,” a key ingredient in the making stainless steel which was accidentally discovered in the area in 2008. It turned out to be the largest deposit of chromite in North America.

Mining the Ring of Fire enjoys the rare support of practically all parties involved - federally, provincially and even quite a few Anishinaabe/Omushkego members. The federal government estimates between $30 billion and $50 billion worth of mineral resources lay in the ground.

The entire province will feel the positive economic impact, especially the north with its mining consulting and equipment industries, as well as its supply and service sectors. We have to get it right, especially for the Aboriginal communities to ensure they have the tools to fully participate in the development,” says Christine Kaszycki, coordinator of the Ontario government's Ring of Fire secretariat, the provincial body responsible for developing the Ring of Fire.

Getting it Right’ With the Ring of Fire

Using the catch-phrase ‘getting it right’ when discussing the Ring of Fire mining project has become as popular as the region's Johnny-Cash-song-title name. The mayor of Thunder Bay wants his city, which lies 500 km to the south, to be “the next Fort McMurray” referring to the tar sands-boom town in Alberta. However the mayor insists “we’re hoping to do it right” if the development is approved.

Getting it right’ to ensure the Anishinaabe/Omushkego are positively, not negatively, affected by mining the Ring of Fire will most likely prove more difficult than mining chromite in the area.

A briefing note to the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs obtained by the CBC last June warned low education levels, housing shortages and lack of access to clean drinking water could “jeopardize” the ability of the Anishinaabe/Omushkego to enjoy the economic benefits of the Ring of Fire development.

The 70% high school drop out rate in Anishinaabe/Omushkego communities creates a huge skills gap between Anishinaabe/Omushkego hoping for employment in mining the Ring of Fire and the skills and qualifications mining companies will seek for their operations.

Canada and Mining Company Thwarting Anishinaabe/Omushkego Call For Joint Review Panel

Although proponents of mining the Ring of Fire claim they want to do what is best for the Anishinaabe/Omushkego, the behaviour of some proponents seems to indicate otherwise.

The Matawa chiefs of the Anishinaabe/Omushkego mounted a legal challenge in 2011 demanding a independent joint review panel (JRP) be established to deliberate over mining company Cliffs Natural Resources' chromite project called 'Black Thor' instead of relying on an environmental assessment conducted by Cliffs.

What we have now is a paper-based (environmental assessment) process, run completely outside of the communities affected, with no meaningful involvement of First Nations, and is non-transparent,” said Aroland First Nation Chief Sonny Gagnon in a statement.  

It needs to be made accessible, by holding hearings in the First Nations and using an independent panel,” Gagnon concluded.

A JRP would be more thorough and require more time than the comprehensive environmental assessment Cliffs and the federal government want. The JRP would also be required to travel Anishinaabe/Omushkego communities to hold meetings and consultations with residents.

Cliffs claims the legal challenge is “impeding the progression” of their project. Last March a federal judge ruled in favour of the Matawa chiefs and a judicial review on whether a JRP should be conducted on the Black Thor project will take place this summer. The judge also criticized Cliffs and the federal government for causing unnecessary delays in the case.

Cliffs has been neither cooperative or helpful during this entire process. They should not be surprised that they themselves are facing delays with their project,” says Hart of MiningWatch. MiningWatch is one of a handful of organizations supporting the Matawa chiefs' call for the JRP.

The Ring of Fire May Not Be Economically Feasible

The necessary infrastructure investment alone to mine the Ring of Fire will be at least $1 billion and mining companies are looking for Ontario or the federal government to foot a big chunk of this bill. This area is a relatively untouched wilderness with few roads.

In addition massive investments into the Ring of Fire project - whether by a company or a government - may be difficult to justify given the recent decline in commodity prices.

An Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) analyst described the economics of Cliffs' Black Thor project as questionable given the current price of refined chromite or ferrochrome.

Value-added jobs such as refining chromite for Ontarians will not be in abundance as many had expected. Cliffs wants to refine 40% of Black Thor's chromite outside of Canada. The other half is to be processed in Sudbury, Ontario but a processing centre still needs to be built. It is anticipated Cliffs will likely rely on subsidized Ontario electricity rates to off-set the cost of energy-intensive chromite refining.

The world is not going to stop using stainless steel anytime soon. The chromite in the Ring of Fire is not going anywhere. There is no need to rush the development,” Hart told DeSmog Canada.

If mining the Ring of Fire is truly in the public's interest – and that is a big if - why not take the time to do it right?” he said.

*Anishinaabe and Omushkego are the names for the “Ojibwe” and “Cree” First Nations peoples of northern Ontario in their own languages. The author has used “Anishinaabe/Omushkego” instead of “Anishinaabe and Omushkego” to recognize the interconnection and sharing between these two cultures that has taken place in northern Ontario.

Image Credit: Tony Dang Flickr, Government of Ontario