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Two North Shore communities have ambition to revive a Lake Superior port

Marathon and Biigtigong Nishnaabeg teaming up to create a port authority

The Town of Marathon and Biigtigong Nishnaabeg (formerly Pic River) are looking to revive the port facilities at the site of the former Marathon Pulp mill.

The two neighbouring communities have signed a memorandum of understanding to create a port authority and establish the only commercial port on the north shore of Lake Superior, between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay. Besides being blessed with a natural harbour, what remains from the pulp mill days is a 500-foot (152 metres) wharf with 11 steel bollards in place for ship tie-up.

"From what we've been looking at and from the preliminary discussions with the engineers, it's ship-ready," said Marathon Mayor Rick Dumas. "We could pull in ships today."

The port initiative and repurposing the brownfield site has figured prominently in the municipality's economic development plans since the closure of Marathon Pulp in 2009. Discussions began picking up steam in the last two years with the arrival in town of Generation Mining.

The Toronto mining company has plans to develop an open-pit palladium and copper mine 10 kilometres north of the town centre. Commercial production at the proposed mine will tentatively begin in late 2023 and early 2024.

The dock is attached to 93 acres of developable land, where the mill once stood, near the middle of town. The current draft at the dock is 25 feet (7.6 metres), deepening to 30 feet (9 metres) further out in Peninsula Harbour.

The property is five kilometres off the Trans-Canada Highway and a CP rail spur runs onto the site, ending 500 metres from the dock. The site, zoned heavy industrial, has municipal water, sewer and fibre-optic connections, and a five-megawatt substation. In terms of inbound marine cargoes, Dumas said they would be looking to attract bulk freight that area communities and industry always need, such as road salt, aggregates and fuel oil.

"We're looking at things we use every day."

By way of outbound cargoes, Dumas said they're exploring to see if mineral concentrate from Generation Mining can be transported by ship to a smelter for processing.

They're also wondering if they can divert pulp products from the AV Terrace Bay mill, an hour's drive to the west, straight to Marathon for direct shipment overseas, instead of railing it to the Port of Montreal.

Dumas said there are proponents who are "banging on our door," keen to move cargo over the dock. At the same time, they'll have to beat the bushes, in talking to potential shippers, to drum up additional opportunities.

"Once the business model gets up and running, we'll be looking for opportunity to generate revenue whatever way that comes."

Dumas said the toxic legacy left behind from the Marathon Pulp era is firmly in the rear-view mirror.

After the mill's closure, the property was found to be heavily contaminated. There were industrial spills into the harbour that had to be cleaned up and capped. Until those issues were addressed to the satisfaction of the Ministry of Environment, and Tembec paid for the clean up, it hindered Marathon's efforts in securing a buyer for the site.

Today, the only remaining mill buildings are a licensed pump house, to draw water from Lake Superior, and a large refurbished maintenance garage, two structures the town purposely left standing.

"Everything is clean and it's a big, big piece of property," said Dumas. "There's huge opportunity and this (the port authority) is the first step in going forward."

During construction of the East-West Tie transmission line, Dumas said the town generated "quite a bit of revenue" in renting the property out to Valard Construction, the project's general contractor.

The Alberta company used the site as a base for parking its vehicles, excavators and containers, and as a laydown area for the assembly materials used in tower construction. As for the governance of the port authority, it will be a 50/50 joint ownership between the Town of Marathon and Biigtigong Nishnaabeg.

There would be equal representation on a board of directors who would in turn hire a port manager. Costs and revenue generated by the port authority would be split equally between the communities.

Dumas said it's a natural fit to include Biigtigong in this endeavour.

"We live, work and play together," he said, mentioning the well-established economic and social ties with the nearby First Nation. Biigtigong has been heavily involved in area hydroelectric projects over the years and the two communities have often discussed collaborations on local forestry opportunities.

In a news release, Biigtigong Nishnaabeg Chief Duncan Michano echoed Dumas' remarks that keeping this partnership based locally is an investment in the future well-being of both communities.

"We look forward to the economic opportunities this will bring to both Biigtigong and Marathon," said Michano. "When we work together, we prosper together."

Over the next few months, Dumas said they'll need to conduct a full engineering assessment of the dock site and determine what areas of the harbour need to be dredged.

The cost to establish an authority is still to be determined, he said, pertaining to setting up the governance structure and in hiring a port manager and that office's needs. In billing this initiative as a regional port, Dumas said they'll be sharing their business plan with federal and provincial funding agencies and intend to keep them in the loop. Dumas felt confident a port authority can be in place by this time next year.

And if there's a model they would like to follow, Dumas said it would be the municipally owned port in Goderich. A local delegation will be heading down to the southwestern Ontario town on Lake Huron in a few months to gain some insight on how they run their operation.

"No sense in recreating the wheel," said Dumas. "We'll just go down and see how they're doing things and talk to them."