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Marathon campaigns for local palladium mine project

Environmental review panel sizes up Generation Mining's open-pit project
Marathon lakefront

The Town of Marathon is out to make a good impression.

A proposed open-pit palladium mine project is undergoing scrutiny through an environmental assessment (EA) process this fall and the north shore community of 3,300 is determined to show its support for the mining industry.

A government-appointed environmental review panel is scheduled to arrive in Marathon this week for a site visit.

Marathon Mayor Rick Dumas said when they do they'll see lawn signs displaying Marathon Supports Mining and other demonstrations of support for Generation Mining and its Marathon Project.

"We want for them to recognize that Marathon supports mining."

The town has been without an anchor industry since Marathon Pulp went bankrupt in 2009, shuttering the mill and throwing 240 people out of work.

Generation Mining's palladium and copper mine figures to be a game changer for Marathon with 1,000 construction jobs and 400 direct mining jobs.

The main zone of palladium sits 10 kilometres north of the community, which sits on the north shore of Lake Superior, roughly halfway between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. The development also includes a mill and a tailings facility for waste rock.

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The combined federal and provincial EA process was put on hold back in 2014 when the project's then-owners, Stillwater Mining, decided to mothball the project after palladium prices tanked. 

The EA process restarted last fall after being shelved for six years when Toronto's Generation Mining acquired a controlling position in the Marathon project two summers ago and, after extensive exploration, announced plans to push forward on a mine development.

Three palladium, platinum and copper deposits have been identified on a portion of the company's largely unexplored 220-square-kilometre property with the real likelihood of discovering many more deposits.

The review panel consists of three appointees who are evaluating the company's plans and are taking comments from nearby communities. A formal public hearing is expected to be held in Marathon some time this fall.

Dumas, who wants the EA process is move expeditiously, estimates the municipality has received 150 emails from local and regional residents in support of the project. Some area First Nations are also lending their support and are in negotiations with the company on benefit agreements.

Many comments for and against the project are online on the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada's website.

Dumas said he fully anticipates some pushback during the EA process from environmental groups, remembering some encounters with activists going back to 2013 and 2014.

"I asked them specifically, where do you live?

"You come from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, New York, You come to Marathon and tell us what we should be doing in our backyard. I think we're very good stewards of our own backyard and environmental concerns.

"I do feel that there are groups out there that are always going to object to any type of industry, mining or forestry, but the reality is what are we all going to do? We're not going to pick flowers."

The mine project is expected to create 1,000 construction jobs and 300 to 400 permanent jobs at the operation. 

One of the three identified deposits is pegged to have a mine life of 13 years but mining company management said their extensive land package has huge exploration upside.   

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“Marathon is going to be long and strong, I believe, in the mining sector for many years to come," said Dumas.

The lawn signs are the first step in a wider marketing campaign. The town is looking to attract workers and their families to town, but it could create stress on a local housing inventory that's already tight.

“Marathon has zero vacancy," said Dumas. "When a home goes up for sale, it’s gone. There are bidding wars, which is very unusual, and prices have really escalated over the last year and a half."

He attributes the housing crunch to a combination of a wave of retirees from Barrick Gold, up the highway in Hemlo, spinoff activity related to the construction of the East-West Tie transmission line project, and the pandemic-induced migration of office workers from cities to small town to work remotely.

New development in Marathon to accommodate the mine workforce could come in the form of new housing, a subdivision plan that's been on the books for years, and possibly work camp accommodations for construction workers.

Dumas said the municipality has been in regular communication with Gen Mining in regards to what their needs will be. Those should be clarified over the next several months as they go through the EA process and gain a better understanding of what they want.

In a late August webcast, Gen Mining executive chair Kerry Knoll said among their next steps is to raise $665 million for the mine's construction, including $20 million up front for detailed mine engineering work and another $13 million to begin placing equipment orders for its mining fleet and processing mill.

First mine production could begin in late 2024 or early 2024.

"The biggest challenge is to get the environmental approvals," said Knoll, who expects that to occur in June or July 2022.

"No guarantees when it comes to government and permitting, but we think it's gonna happen." 

Knoll said governments seem favourably disposed to supporting resource projects with the critical minerals needed for greening the economy.

With luck, he said, construction is expected to start at this time next year. The only delay would be a permitting issue. 

"We don't see that happening, but when it comes to permitting you never really know."