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Mining the Northwest: 'Times are changing' as Red Rock preps for lithium refinery

Rock Tech Lithium expects to break ground on lithium conversion plant in 2025
Red Rock waterfront
Red Rock's waterfront

The BMI Group said it’s spending millions to prepare and remediate the former Red Rock paper mill site to make it shovel-ready for new industrial use by 2025.

The southern Ontario brownfield redeveloper chose the PDAC mining show to formally announce Rock Tech Lithium will be its anchor tenant built around a proposed lithium refinery.

The Canadian-German mining company’s Georgia Lake deposit is only 60 kilometres north of town, up Highway 11.

“We believe in the north shore of Lake Superior,” said Peter Whitby, general manager of BMI’s Red Rock Developments subsidiary, in explaining their upcoming industrial and holistic community-building plans for the north shore town on Lake Superior.

“Our mission is to grow the community in a way that benefits the people of Red Rock.”

The company has wholeheartedly jumped on Ontario’s critical minerals bandwagon and is taking a seat to be a part of the supply chain that involves moving material from mines in Northern Ontario to the mid-level processing plants and further downstream to electrical vehicle manufacturers in the south.

BMI is partnering with the Red Rock Indian Band to redevelop and repurpose the former Norampac site as a local catalyst for growth. The emphasis is on doing things in a economically and environmentally sustainable way and protecting the postcard beauty of the north shore.

“It’s absolutely beautiful,” said Whitby. “We’re on the lake. There’s a mountain behind us and it’s our job to protect nature."

A big piece of their plans involves restoring Red Rock Bay as a commercial harbour on the Great Lakes.

The refinery will be a cornerstone project for BMI to revitalize the former forestry mill town, which experienced the closure of the Norampac kraft linerboard plant in 2006, tossing 300 out of work.

Riversedge Developments — now BMI — bought the mill site from the township for $10 in 2014 and endured an initial rocky relationship with the municipality. Development stagnated until just recently.

Beginning last year and during PDAC week, BMI has made liberal use of social media and event promotion to unveil a bold, ambitious vision to repurpose the vacant mill site and renew community housing stock.

With its main business ties in the Niagara peninsula, BMI spent PDAC week pitching to mining companies and politicians its From the North to Niagara multi-modal transportation approach to moving critical minerals by road, rail and ship to manufacturers in the south.

BMI is also joining Rock Tech as a refinery project partner with a $5.5-million investment to take an unspecified equity stake in the project.

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Whitby said it was long evident that the property would never return as a paper mill — the production buildings have been demolished — so they had to think differently on how the land could fit into the larger regional picture.

With a slew of mine development and exploration activity along the north shore, the Nipigon area and in the Far North, straight into the Ring of Fire, Whitby said their focus turned to the handling of critical minerals and transporting them to market. 

Before any construction can take place, a major cleanup effort of the former mill property was in order.

Whitby said they’ve made substantial headway in spending $4 million last year to remediate contaminated areas on the property and restore power connections.

“It was a damaged piece of land.”

The MOE had issued a laundry list of items to be addressed.

“The property had an environmental order and we tackled all those items,” said Whitby, including taking down a bunker C fuel tank last fall. 

This year, Whitby said BMI is budgeting $10 million to continue remediation and make infrastructure upgrades on site and about town.

He said the company is applying to Hydro One and the IESO (Independent Electricity System Operator) to add the capacity to deliver 100 megawatts of power. There’s plenty of available power generation on the north shore, from its forest industry past, and from three dams on the nearby Nipigon River.

A big part of BMI’s multi-modal transportation model is to restore the commercial port.

Whitby said their intention is not to restore the former paper mill dock but opt for a quicker, cheaper solution.

The plan is to acquire a modular barge that would serve as a dock. Other vessels would tie up to it to load and unload cargo. The concept, he said, is commonplace on Canada’s West Coast and in the Far North.

A new rail spur will be returned to the site via the existing right of way, which is being levelled and prepared for new rail to be installed.

Whitby said they’re also working with the township to strengthen a 75-year-old bridge on the main road leading into the community. Eventually, a new bridge will be put in place within five years.

That span, crossing Trout Creek, will have to support heavy haul trucks carrying lithium concentrate from the Georgia Lake mine, situated between Beardmore and Nipigon.

At the deposit, mined spodumene — a widely used and preferred rock because of its high lithium content — will be crushed into a concentrate and trucked to Red Rock. There, the material will be converted into a a battery-grade material, such as lithium hydroxide, that’s in demand in the electric vehicle market.

On the real estate front, Whitby said BMI is spending more than $10 million building new homes and renovating existing ones in Red Rock and neighbouring communities.

Last year, BMI proudly proclaimed they’ve built the first new house in Red Rock in 35 years, a 1,400-square-foot, three-bedroom home.

“We’re super happy with that,” said Whitby.

Apparently, that’s just the start.

In nearby Nipigon, Whitby said they’re planning 10 new homes over the next 12 months, and have purchased and renovated 30 houses in Red Rock, Nipigion, Beardmore, Geraldton, Longlac, Nakina, Schreiber and Terrace Bay.

If BMI and Rock Tech want to attract companies and workers to the region, “housing is key,” said Whitby.

“We’re here to say, times are changing. In order for the Red Rock mill site to thrive, we need a great community where people want to live and work.”

Rock Tech is one of four advanced lithium players in northwestern Ontario — along with Avalon Advanced Materials, Frontier Lithium, and Green Technology Metals  — all jockeying to put Ontario’s first lithium refinery into operation.

The refinery would occupy 50 acres of the 300-acre vacant mill site. 

With an estimated cost to build it in the range of $1 billion to $1.5 billion, Rock Tech is considering a financing combination of equity from strategic industry partners, taking on project debt and government funding, according to a company spokesperson.

Timetable-wise, Rock Tech expects to break ground at Georgia Lake and Red Rock some time during the second half of 2025. The mine and refinery would enter production in 2027 and 2028, respectively.

Konstantin Deichesel, head of strategy and business innovation, said “very productive discussions” are happening with potential customers in the cathode, battery and electric vehicle manufacturing, which may join to support the development at some point.

“Those partnership and offtake agreements will be announced in due course.”