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'Waiting on government is not a strategy,' says NW Ontario mine developer

Frontier Lithium ramps up pressure on Ottawa to deliver on Berens River bridge and road project
Berens River Bridge conceptual (Berens River Bridge and Road communities' website)

Federal funding appears to be slowly rolling out for the Berens River road and bridge in northwestern Ontario.

The long-awaited infrastructure project is a vital link that would connect seven remote First Nations to the provincial highway system for the first time and allow Frontier Lithium, a Sudbury mine developer with two massive lithium deposits, to finally get its product to market.

Indigenous Services Canada told Northern Ontario Business on Friday that more than $7.7 million of the $9.5 million for the design of the bridge and road project has been released with $1.8 million scheduled for released in the 2024-2025 fiscal year. 

“While the bridge design is complete,” said spokesperson Randy Legault-Rankin in an email, “further archaeological work is still required to be completed next fiscal year” on portions south of the bridge site and to the north on the proposed all-season road to Pikangikum, which would conclude the design phase.

The government did not indicate a timeline and start date for the bridge and road construction.

“Details of the construction timeline and identified contractors will not be known until the project has been approved for funding and tendered. The group of First Nations is leading the project and will have a role in identifying local content and First Nations participation in the tender package.”

The proposed bridge and road project, located near Pikangikum and 90 kilometres north of Red Lake, would create a two-lane, 194-metre modern span across the Berens River, realign and beef up a winter road, and connect more than 8,000 people in communities like Pikangikum, Sandy Lake and the Keewaytinook Okimakanak communities to Highway 125.

The communities are the bridge and road proponents.

It’s been a long time coming. The funding process for the bridge goes back to 2009 when the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund provided $158,000 to Sandy Lake First Nation for the design, survey and environmental work of the structure. Ottawa contributed $1.4 million in bridge design funding in 2019.

Whether there is a permanent road in place or not, Frontier Lithium decided it's game-planning to advance its mine and mill project. 

The company announced last week the start of a definitive feasibility study (DFS), a final technical and economic evaluation, on its PAK lithium project. it contains two highly pure and massive spodumene-bearing lithium deposits, 175 kilometres north of Red Lake, near the Manitoba.

“That control and timeline (of the road and bridge project) is really out of the hands of Frontier,” said Trevor Walker, company president-CEO, in a recent interview with a UK mining analyst.

Walker was at the project site last week and unavailable for comment, but in an online interview posted last week by CRUX Investor, Walker said the “key challenge on the project has been the lack of an all-season road.”

The company needs the bridge and 140 kilometres of all-season road, of which 60 per cent is fully permitted and still awaits federal funding for construction. The bridge is the key transportation bottleneck, Walker said.

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Meanwhile transmission line construction for the continuing Watay Power project into those communities is currently underway. That segment of the line is expected to be energized some time in 2024. The access road would follow the power line corridor.

Walker admitted it’s a time-consuming exercise for industry, governments, Indigenous communities and stakeholders to work through through a major project, but “waiting on government is not a strategy, so we continue to advance the project.”

Valued at $1.7 billion with an initial 24-year mine life, Frontier has been touting PAK as North America’s largest lithium project with the strong likelihood it will grow into a district-sized operation.

Frontier and other lithium companies in northwestern Ontario stand to be the foundational pieces of the federal and provincial government’s much-hyped domestic battery supply chain to feed southern Ontario’s emerging electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing base.

But in Frontier’s case, they can’t make a dent in the market and to the climate change economy if they can’t move lithium concentrate to a refinery in a timely way.

A lithium conversion plant, which Frontier wants to build in Northern Ontario, produces a final lithium hydroxide product: the battery-grade material coveted by EV manufacturers.

Walker said in their conversations with global OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), there’s a huge domestic appetite for lithium spodumene concentrate and chemicals, and Frontier is “front and centre” in those talks. He has no concerns about securing customer off-take agreements at some point.

Frontier’s marching orders to DRA Global, the engineering firm performing the feasibility study, calls for a two-stage mine and mill project. 

In the first stage, Frontier will use the winter road to construct a concentrator line to produce up to 100,000 tonnes a year of a premium spodumene concentrate then transport that material out to market.  The second stage, if a permanent road is in place, would scale up and double the amount of production. 

During the CRUX interview, Walker often used the phrase, “We’re planning for the worst” in realizing that road access could come at some point during the mine’s construction or in the early days of operation. “But in the meantime, we need to be prepared to show profitability on not having that (road).

The study should be done in 12 to 18 months when Frontier expects to make a final investment decision on PAK.

Walker said proceeding with their project planning should provide some leverage for Ottawa "to do the right thing for the communities."

Walker said their environmental baseline study should be completed by mid-2024, right about the time they commence permitting for the mine and mill. 

Conversations with partner First Nations, he said, are “advancing nicely” to move the relationship beyond exploration agreements to more fulsome impact benefit agreements.