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Marathon plans to reap the benefits from palladium, copper mine

Resilient north shore community strategizes to be shovel-ready for open-pit project
Marathon aerial shot
A dated photo of the community of Marathon, showing the since-demolished Marathon Pulp mill. (Supplied photo)

The Town of Marathon is banking on preparation paying off.

A proposed open-pit mine on the outskirts of the north shore community of 3,300 could attract as many as 2,000 people over the next two to three years.

Earlier this month, Toronto's Generation Mining released a positive feasibility study of its Marathon Palladium and Copper Project, projecting a 13-year mine life with an aggressive timeline to begin mining by 2024.

The $1-billion development is expected to bring 1,100 construction jobs to town, employ close to 400 miners when in operation, and generate many more indirect and spinoff positions.

"From a community development perspective, we're prepared to take on that size but a lot of work goes into being prepared to do that," said town CAO Daryl Skworchinski.

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Ever since the demise of Marathon Pulp in 2009 and the 300 mill jobs that went with it, town administrators have been steadily laying the groundwork to be a good host for whatever economic opportunity comes next.

Before the dust settled on the mill's demolition, they were crafting a multi-faceted, readiness strategy to acquire the brownfield property, assess their housing inventory, and make upgrades to community facilities and infrastructure.

Like many former forestry mill-dependant communities, the mining building and exploration boom along the north shore of Lake Superior has transitioned local economies like Marathon's into becoming bedroom communities and regional support hubs for the mineral sector.

Many of the 500 mining and contractor jobs at the Barrick-owned Hemlo gold complex, a 30-minute drive away on the Trans-Canada Highway, are filled by local residents.

Now in Marathon's backyard is a series of palladium and copper deposits sitting only seven kilometres from its downtown.

The rugged terrain around Marathon, west of Barrick's Hemlo gold operations, has been known for decades to contain an abundant and untapped resource of palladium and copper.

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Generation Mining's Main Deposit is near the end of the airport runway, which parallels the Trans-Canada Highway.

"We've got an approval to amend certain flight paths at the airport already to accommodate that development. It's super close," said Skworchinski.

Based on the town's discussions with the mining company, the workforce will likely comprise both area labour and skilled transient workers, requiring both new housing development and camp accommodations in the community.

Local housing availability is already at a premium.

Market prices are higher than is traditional, Skworchinski said, but are still very competitive.

Marathon is already experiencing a bit of trial run on what to expect.

Hundreds of workers are in the area for the construction of the $1-billion East-West Tie transmission project, a 230-kilovolt line between Wawa and Thunder Bay. Utility contractor Valard Construction has a large work camp just outside of town.

In its preparations to accommodate mine staff, the municipality wants to attract families.

Building an individual home is expensive in a place like Marathon, so town officials are contemplating whether to build a fleet of homes that are move-in ready.

"Housing is something we can't put off and is certainly on the agenda for 2021," Skworchinski said. "Do we parcel out sets of 25 and look for developers to come onstream? Those are some of the internal machinations we're going through right now."

By digging into its past, the municipality is blowing the dust off of some aborted subdivision plans from the 1980s Hemlo mining boom days when Marathon's population stood at 6,500.

Skworchinski said there's enough room to infill within the town's boundaries, with ample road, water and sewer infrastructure, and a new landfill approved in 2015.

"Marathon was planned on paper to grow to 10,000 residents," he said. "There is the ability to build another 100 to 200 homes in the short term."

Recently, the municipality has shored up the community's internet capacity, thanks to a new partnership with TBay Tel to bring in high-speed broadband. The local health-care team is equipped to handle an inflow of new arrivals, Skworchinski said. They're also confident a liquefied natural gas project – through an alliance with five neighbouring communities – will come to fruition.

"We've done a good job over the last eight years," said Skworchinski, mentioning the consistency in the outlook coming from town council and in the mayor's chair with Rick Dumas.

"We've had strategic plans and we've stuck to them. It hasn't been the flavour of the day or what the government was willing to fund. If it wasn't in our plan it wasn't something we were going to look it."

From the mill bankruptcy sale, the town acquired 2,000 acres of developable land, a mix of brownfield, commercial and residential property, including the 100-acre mill site and the commercial wharf.

"It took us the better part of 10 years to close that deal," said Skworchinski. "But that was why we never let go for it, because we always envisioned if this opportunity ever presented itself we needed to be ready."

Town administration went through the headache of dealing with contamination issues at the mill site and the years of frustration, post-remediation, in navigating a tough environmental regulatory regime while trying to lure new industrial players to the waterfront land.

With the site now under municipal control, the town intends to begin marketing the property as an industrial business park for potential mine service and logistic firms, and maybe value-added forest products once again.

But mining opens up a wealth of business development and job creation opportunities for Marathon.

With palladium prices hovering at US$2,400 an ounce, a once-marginal mine project is now viable again.

Palladium is used in the catalytic converters in cars to scrub toxic emissions from exhausts.

A predecessor company in the 2000s, Marathon PGM, attempted to bring the deposit into production but ran into financing issues.

Stillwater Mining bought the project in 2010 but shelved it four years later when palladium prices plummeted. Stillwater was later acquired by Sibanye of South Africa in 2017.

Enter a new upstart, Generation Mining, which signed an option agreement with Sibanye-Stillwater for the property in the summer of 2019.

Through agreed-upon exploration spending, Gen Mining has boosted its ownership stake in the project to 80 per cent.

The mine's longevity and scale could extend well beyond 13 years since only a fraction of the company's property has been explored. The feasibility study only covers one of three deposits on the company's extensive 220-square-kilometre holdings, which almost encircles the town.

But as it stands now, the operation will annually average 146,000 ounces of palladium, 36 million pounds of copper, 41,000 ounces of platinum, with some gold and silver credits thrown in.

The project is entering the environmental assessment permitting stage, a process expected to take a year. That's enough time for Gen Mining's principals to raise $665 million for a mid-2022 construction start.

If all goes according to plan, 18 months later commercial production could begin at the beginning of 2024.

Despite the positive feasibility study, the mine project isn't officially green-lighted. Sibanye still has a buy-back arrangement to regain 51 per cent ownership of the project.

The discussion between the two companies will play itself out over the next months, but Gen Mining executives insist they intend to take the property through to production.

Skworchinski said they can't control whether Sibanye re-enters the picture, but optimism is high among many in the community who feel confident that Gen Mining has put in place an experienced team that knows the resource well and has a track record of raising financing to bring mines into production.

"We've been in lock-step with them in supporting the project but collectively looking at the planning required," he said.

"We're going to be prepared for it and be positioned to take real advantage of this opportunity if a shovel ultimately goes in the ground... hopefully in the not too distant future."