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Thunder Bay could host two lithium processors, says EDC business manager

Waterfront industrial land at a ‘premium’ as city becomes magnet for the lithium industry
Ore dock and grain elevators on Thunder Bay's waterfront (Northern Ontario Business photo)

Thunder Bay’s historic working waterfront could be repurposed to serve northwestern Ontario’s booming lithium industry and Ontario’s budding electric vehicle manufacturing base. 

There are no operating lithium mines in the region, but three out of four of the leading exploration players have either selected or are considering placing lithium hydroxide converters in the city. 

“The whole world is looking at northwestern Ontario,” said Andrew Kane, Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission’s natural resources business development manager. And Thunder Bay is nicely positioned to take advantage.

“We’re the talk of the lithium industry,” said Kane, who assists incoming companies in searching for suitable sites.

Vacant paper mill properties and other industrial brownfields are much sought-after properties for companies like Toronto’s Avalon Advanced Materials and Green Technology Metals of Australia.

Kane said he wouldn’t be surprised to see a major government investment announcement within the next 12 to 18 months to place, initially, two lithium refineries in Thunder Bay. 

These processors, which are largely chemical refineries, would make lithium hydroxide. This battery-grade material is needed to feed the battery manufacturing plants under construction in Windsor and St. Thomas, the downstream end of a larger made-in-Ontario supply chain.

“There’s going to be an insatiable demand,” said Kane.

Avalon Advanced Materials has selected the former Abitibi pulp and paper mill in Thunder Bay’s north end as a processing site. The company recently hosted federal Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne for a photo-op walkabout.

Green Technology Metals said last week it has an option to buy the old Cascades Fine Papers property.

This week, a third company, Rock Tech Lithium, announced Thunder Bay is on its radar to site a processor.

A fourth company, Frontier Lithium of Sudbury, operators of one of the North America’s largest and richest lithium deposits north of Red Lake, is keeping its cards covered on where its plant will go. Kane said they could opt to set up shop closer to home.

Rock Tech’s decision to process lithium in Ontario was a change in strategy. The company, with Canadian and German ties, had planned to mine and crush lithium at its Georgia Lake pit near Beardmore, then ship the concentrate overseas to Germany for final processing. 

But Kane, a former analyst with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, said that’s allowed to happen only on rare occasions. 

Section 91 of Ontario’s Mining Act stipulates that ore mined in Ontario shall be refined in Canada.

“I think the province is saying, if you’re going to mine it here, you’re going to process it here, and you’re going to sell it to the battery plants here.”

In Quebec, the federal and provincial government there are investing heavily to attract multinationals like Ford, GM, nickel miner Vale and chemical producer BASF to a mammoth battery metals processing hub at the port city of Bécancour.

Thunder Bay can carve out a niche of its own in the electric vehicle supply chain.

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It’s close to an abundant and untapped supply of world-class lithium resources in the northwest. The city has great transportation infrastructure and ample industrial land on the Lake Superior waterfront with access to the Seaway system.

According to the city’s land strategy, Thunder Bay has 770 hectares of vacant industrial land, 200 hectares of that in the heavy industrial category located mostly on the waterfront. There are power, natural gas, water and sewer connections with rail and port access.  And brownfield sites are easier to obtain approval for a refinery.

*All of it is considered premium ground,” said Kane, and is of great interest to a myriad of door-knocking companies. Some want to do large-scale energy storage, shotcrete for the mining industry, and set up a distribution centre for phosphate headed for Western Canada. 

Some properties have environmental legacy issues that will need remediation, but that’s part of the due diligence process by the prospective owners, Kane said.

Kane doesn’t envision multiple lithium refineries on the waterfront. He predicts industry consolidation through mergers, acquisitions or companies electing to do joint processing ventures. Junior exploration companies usually don’t graduate into actual mining companies.

Yet the existence of these refineries in Thunder Bay should help to improve the project economics to bring smaller regional deposits into production.

The city's land-use study, penned in 2020, said Thunder Bay’s reliance on the natural resources industries was on the wane and being supplanted by the growing knowledge-based economy. That report was written before the current lithium boom.

No doubt, Kane said, institutions like Confederation College, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences, and all the associated research, has expanded that sector of the local economy by leaps and bounds.

But Thunder Bay’s location as a regional service hub for mining has always been active, Kane said.

Even more so these days, he said, with Kinross Gold’s acquisition of the Great Bear project in Red Lake, Greenstone Gold putting the finishing touches on its pit near Geraldton, and Argonaut Gold entering production at its Magino Mine outside Dubreuilville. 

“In terms of exploration and mining and associated businesses, it’s booming."

Vaughan-headquartered shaft sinkers DMC Mining has put roots near the waterfront. In the last couple years, five Australian-based early exploration companies have established offices in the city, he said. 

Besides lithium, Kane said other minerals could provide value-added processing opportunities.

Years ago, the CEDC published a blue-sky proposal for the city to be a nickel and copper processing hub. Not long ago, Thunder Bay was in the hunt to host a Ring of Fire chromite smelter in a four-city bidding war staged by Noront Resources.

But don’t expect the length of Thunder Bay’s scenic waterfront to become totally reindustrialized. Kane said it'll likely evolve into a series of mixed-use developments.

The owners of the former Thunder Bay generating station, Hamilton’s Budget Demolition, had is site rezoned last year to host potential businesses involved in “industrial computing.” The company did not respond to a query by Northern Ontario Business on its future plans. 

Former commercial docks and derelict grain elevator sites in the north end have been transformed into a combination of private developments and public gathering places. There’s been the award-winning success of Prince Arthur’s Landing, construction of a popular Delta Hotel, adjacent condominiums, a restaurant, a cruise ship dock, a proposed new art gallery and possibly the northwestern satellite venue of Sudbury’s Science North.

Kane said there’s a push to keep developing that aspect of the waterfront.

“As the natural resource sector and the knowledge economy continue to grow there’s going to be a demand for recreational facilities, new developments, condos and whatever else there may be.”