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Province, companies set to rehab Steep Rock mine

New industrial life may be breathed into an abandoned open pit mine in northwestern Ontario.
There may be new life for the former Steep Rock iron ore open pit if the province and industry can agree on a remediation plan.

New industrial life may be breathed into an abandoned open pit mine in northwestern Ontario.

The Ontario government has accepted business proposals from gold miner Brett Resources and Bending Lake Iron Group to process iron ore and dispose of mine tailings at the former Steep Rock Mine site near Atikokan.

But the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) announced Aug. 5 that the companies must meet several conditions, including an environmental assessment, toward rehabilitating the 5,200-hectare property before any development takes place.

Thunder Bay's Bending Lake Iron Group wants to ship iron ore mined from a deposit near Ignace to the Steep Rock site for processing into a high-quality iron nugget for the U.S. steel industry. Brett wants to use one of the property's pits as a tailings basin for its nearby Hammond Reef gold mine project.

The property, with its multiple pits, is very environmentally sensitive and there are several mitigation issues to address.

The Steep Rock iron ore mine was once the main employer in Atikokan when it operated from 1944 to 1979. It employed 1,500 at its peak.

The mine was once a lake drained during the Second World War to access the iron ore. To stop the flow of water into the lake, the area's watershed was reconfigured with the construction of a network of dams and water diversion tunnels to divert the Seine River. Since the site reverted to the Crown in 1988, the province has spent close to $7 million to maintain these structures.

An onus of environmental responsibility is being placed on the companies toward the site's long-term rehabilitation.

Natural Resources spokeswoman Kathryn Lyzun said these proposals must meet “stringent environmental standards” before any provincial approvals are given.

In an email interview with Northern Ontario Business, she said the companies will be required to file their development plans and show how their projects will support the site's rehabilitation.

An environmental assessment process could take one to three years before any construction takes place.

Since the brownfield site is close to road, rail, power and natural gas connections, it's been considered an almost turn-key site for industrial development for many years.

Lyzun noted the province is open to considering other “complementary” industrial and commercial business proposals for the property.

A third company, Cassandra Power, wanted to use a pit as a reservoir to store and pump water to generate power.

Lyzun said because MNR's waterpower site release policy is under review, the ministry “is not accepting applications for waterpower development at this time.”

Finding a new use for Steep Rock is resonating with the provincial politicians.

“The status of this former mine site has long been a concern to those who live in Atikokan,” said Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey in a statement. “My Ministry is committed to working closely with the local community on how best to support the long-term rehabilitation of the site and at the same time build economic stability.”

Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle said the site's rehabilitation is essential to the area's environment. “The government of Ontario is delighted to have two (industry) partners willing to invest in the region and help reduce environmental risks at the Steep Rock site.”