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A road to the Ring of Fire is 'everything.' Railway? Not so much

Noront Resources exploration boss digs into the details of the 2021 exploration year

The mineral endowment in the Ring of Fire appears to be vast, deep, rich and long-lasting.

As compelling as the geological picture is of the world-class base and precious metal deposits in the Far North exploration camp, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, all anyone wants to talk about is, what's happening with the access roads?

It's a topic of discussion too with Noront Resources, the leading mine developer in the James Bay lowlands.

"The road is everything," said Ryan Weston, the company's vice-president of exploration, at a recent web gathering of the Sudbury Prospectors and Developers Association. 

"Without the road there's no Ring of Fire development, which means there's no exploration."

Noront holds eight mineral deposits of chromite, nickel, copper, zinc, platinum, palladium, along with 100 documented mineral occurrences with showings of gold, titanium, vanadium, diamonds and cobalt.

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In his presentation,  Weston drilled down into the details of the camp's geology, explained what Noront has learned over two decades of exploration, and laid out some of the company's upcoming exploration and development plans.

"The road has to happen," said Weston. "These are base metal deposits and they will be base metal mines, and they'll exist for a long time."

Environmental assessments are underway on the proposed two-lane gravel road network that will start in the south, beginning with an upgraded forestry road near Nakina, and will end hundreds of kilometres away along a supply route into the exploration camps.

Noront is completely hands-off on the road projects. The planning and construction is being overseen by a combination of Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, and the Ontario government.

Progress on getting the roads built has been slower than Noront would like, but the company anticipates all the EAs wrapping up by 2023, followed by permitting and two years of road construction leading toward a 2025 completion.

That timeline coincides with Noront's schedule to puts its first mine, the Eagle's Nest nickel-copper-platinum group metals project, into commercial production.

Trucks will transport the first shipments of concentrate to a railhead in Nakina to send to Sudbury for processing.

Noront's batting order is to lead off with Eagle's Nest before digging into the first of four chromite deposits, starting with the nearby Blackbird deposit. Both mines will share the same underground infrastructure. The chromite will be shipped to a proposed ferrochrome processing plant in Sault Ste. Marie.

Some recent reports of building a railway straight to the Ring of Fire doesn't appear to fit in Noront's plans, for now.

Weston threw some shade on an effort by KWG Resources - a 30 per cent minority owner in one of Noront's chromite deposits - to revive the concept of an ore haul railroad.

To regain some visibility in the Ring of Fire, KWG recently appointed former CN and CP Rail executive Tony Marquis to its Canada Chrome subsidiary to kickstart the company's railroad campaign.

Early mine production doesn't justify the need for rail, said Weston, "because we don't see it as necessary for the volume of material that we would want to move out of the Ring of Fire; not for the first 10 years, probably 20. Down the road, perhaps."

And a railroad doesn't benefit the First Nation communities, he said. The access roads are going in to benefit the communities first, and industry second.

"A railroad, from our view, it's not necessary to start."

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The company wants to tamp down fears by some Indigenous leaders that roads and mines will trigger unchecked and widespread development across the region.  Many are extremely sensitive of the potential damage that might be done to the wetlands and watersheds in the region.

Weston responds the area's fragile ecosystem and soggy terrain simply won't allow for rampant development. 

"To put in a road is a major engineering feat. I don't foresee that there's being roads everywhere."

He believes all those fears will be put to rest through the federal government's new regional assessment process.

"There will be no legacy issues in the Ring of Fire."

In making the case for a permanent road, Weston said global warming is making the the future of the winter road supply network to the northern communities increasingly "precarious." The cost of living is "enormous" for many who live there.

"The communities say this louder than anybody, they need all-season roads because these winter roads - because of climate change - they're not going to be as reliable as they once were. 

"Developing the Ring of Fire also develops the regional infrastructure for a lot of these remote communities, and generates jobs, and tax revenue for government."

The lack of a road connection is an expensive and logistically challenging endeavour for Noront as well. 

All camp supplies are flown in, including fuel used to run generators, provide heating and keep helicopters flying. 

A drill rig move requires 10 hours of helicopter time, said Weston, who estimates their exploration expenses are "north of $500" per metre drilled.

"We are certainly looking forward to the day when we can drive fuel up."

To alleviate First Nations' concerns about potential water contamination, Noront is designing underground mines rather than open pits. Waste rock will be shoved into the mined-out voids, using paste backfill methods, rather than dumping the tailings on surface.

The surface footprint of the Eagle's Nest mine likely won't get much larger than the size of their current exploration camp. 

Eagle's Nest project has an estimated 11-year mine life with the potential to be extended to 20 years. The massive plunging deposit is two-and-half times the height of the CN Tower.

By putting Eagle's Nest into production first, Weston said the company can make its money back in selling a high quality, marketable concentrate "and use that to open the door to the Ring of Fire and let the chromite business unit play out."

Once Eagle's Nest is in production, the Blackbird chromite deposit can be brought online next, since its only 500 to 700 metres away.

With its four chromite deposits, Noront controls more than 200 million tonnes of high-grade resources in the Ring of Fire.

The plan is to mine just under one million tonnes of chromite annually, producing enough semi-finished ferrochrome to supply half of the U.S. stainless steel industry.

"We'll be mining for quite a while," said Weston. "There's the potential to build a new industry in the country with chromite and ferrochrome production."

As ferrochrome pricing allows, Noront intends to bring the other deposits into production and expand the Sault ferrochrome plant to penetrate into the European and Asian markets, he said.

"But we don't want to start too big. It's no small task building a smelter in Ontario. And chromite is not an exceptional known commodity or business unit."

Hatch Engineering is helping them with the design of the ferrochrome processing facilities.

Heading into the 2021 exploration year, Noront is now being backed by a new "cornerstone investor" in Wyloo Metals, part of an Australian private investment firm with a keen interest in battery metals like copper, nickel and chromium.

With exploration budgets and financing still to be determined, Weston said the first half of this year will be spent reviewing of all the geological data amassed over the years and build a block model to assess the potential of finding more discoveries. 

Noront took advantage of the exodus of companies leaving the Ring of Fire in the wake of the 2013-14 commodities downturn to expand its land holdings. The big fish was hauling in Cliffs Natural Resources chromite deposits in 2015. All of that inherited geological data needs to be combed through to produce a sustained exploration strategy.

Expect a preliminary economic assessment of Blackbird's mine potential to be started this year, he said, while Noront considers what to do with its gold discoveries in either spinning them out into a separate company or signing a joint venture with a major gold producer.

With multiple prospective mineral targets still to test and Noront's growing understanding of the area's geology, Weston said the potential to make more high-grade nickel, copper, zinc and gold discoveries is "quite high."

"We hope Eagle's Nest is the first of many up there."