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Sault Ste. Marie angling for inside track on Ring of Fire smelter

Sault EDC boss makes northwest trip to study Sioux Lookout transload facility idea
Sioux Lookout rail yard
CN rail yard in Sioux Lookout

There is a “Sioux-to-Sault” campaign in the works to move Ring of Fire ore to a processing plant in Sault Ste. Marie.

Tom Dodds, the head of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation, is flying up to Sioux Lookout this week to tour a potential industrial site where business interests, community and First Nation leaders want to establish a truck-to-rail transfer facility to handle chromite and ship it to a proposed Northern Ontario smelter.

A May 29 release from the Town of Sioux Lookout announced Sault Ste. Marie is coming on board to support its transload facility plan.

Later this week on June 2, a site tour is being arranged for some project partners – including Noront Resources and CN Rail – involved in a study to develop a bush lot on the Sioux Lookout’s east side, the preferred spot for a transload facility.

There’s been no official word from Noront on where its ferrochrome smelter will eventually go, but company president-CEO Al Coutts will be making a presentation in Sioux Lookout to the partners on the same day.

Noront, the largest claim holder in the Ring of Fire, is studying four cities in the North – the Sault, Sudbury, Timmins and Thunder Bay-Fort William First Nation – as the potential home for the processing plant.

The company previously said it expects to officially select a site by summer’s end. Noront also sits on a newly formed working group looking at the feasibility of the transload facility.

In an email, Noront spokeswoman Janice Mandel said the fact that Coutts and the Sault EDC are showing up at this event in Sioux Lookout shouldn’t be construed as the company making an early announcement on the smelter.

“Al is making a presentation, but there’s definitely no decision (regarding) a ferrochrome smelting facility. The Soo economic dev. advisor, Tom Dodds, is attending as they’re interested in the transload facility, but that’s all.”

The Integrated Transportation System being championed by Sioux Lookout and the Township of Pickle Lake is built around an east-west road corridor and the transload facility on CN’s main line at Sioux Lookout.

Conceivably, ore from Noront’s proposed Blackbird chromite mine would be trucked down a more than 200-kilometre-long road corridor to Sioux Lookout where it would be loaded onto rail cars and shipped to a ferrochrome processing smelter at a yet-to-be-announced location by the mining company.

“For me, it’s a learning opportunity to meet some people as we help build our business case for Sault Ste. Marie,” said Dodds of the invitation extended to him by Sioux Lookout.

With both communities located on CN track, Dodds said there have been discussions about the mutual benefits of making a “Sioux-to-Sault” case to Noront.

“That approach makes a lot of sense to us.”

But a timetable for when Ring of Fire nickel and chromite ore will actually move hasn’t yet been established.

It depends on the outcome of consultative talks between the Ontario government and the communities of the Matawa tribal council located near the mineral deposits.

After three years, with those confidential discussions dragging on, an anxious Premier Kathleen Wynne wants progress made “within weeks” with a decision on an access route.

Even if an alignment is chosen this year, the actual construction of a road could be years away once the federal and provincial environmental assessment process kicks in.

The Sault’s selling point is having direct CN rail access from Sioux Lookout to Oba, where freight could be diverted south on the former Algoma Central Railway line – owned by CN – to the Sault where Noront has been scoping out industrial land to the immediate west of Algoma Steel as part of its pan-Northern site selection process.

Noront prefers to send processed ferrochrome by marine transport to stainless producers in the Pittsburgh area and northeastern Ohio.

A small export dock already exists at the Sault on the St. Mary’s River but the city and the steel plant have ambitious plans to grow that facility into a larger Great Lakes port to serve a Northern Ontario client base.

Those port plans remain in limbo until Algoma and a sister company, Port of Algoma, finish the creditor protection restructuring process later this year.