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'Actions speak louder than words,' says Wyloo Metals CEO on their Ring of Fire plans

Western Australian miner intends to make Eagle's Nest mine a zero-emissions operation, built on Indigenous procurement and input
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Wyloo Metals CEO Luca Giacovazzi (centre) is flanked by First Nation community advisors Michael Fox and Qasim Saddique. (Michael Fox LinkedIn photo)

Well done is better than well said.

That was the message from Wyloo Metals CEO Luca Giacovazzi, the new man at the controls of Noront Resources and its prized Eagle's Nest nickel project in the Ring of Fire.

Giacovazzi made a crack-of-dawn introductory media call — Western Australia time — only hours after the Perth-headquartered mining company celebrated the closing of its $616.9-million acquisition of the Toronto junior miner on April 7.

"Actions speak louder than words," said Giacovazzi. Wyloo officially makes its foray into Canada to take stock of its holdings in the swampy, isolated but mineral-rich environment that is the James Bay lowlands.

Wyloo is the first major mining company in the Ring of Fire since the departure of Cliffs Natural Resources in 2015. 

It's been 14 years since Noront discovered chromite at McFaulds Lake, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. But little has happened to tangibly move the yard sticks on road or mine construction.  

With its financial heft, Wyloo may be up to the task. 

Headed by Australian billionaire and mining magnate Andrew Forrest and his parentTattarang company, Wyloo is taking Noront private after acquiring all of its shares following last year’s bidding war with BHP. But rather than clam up on its intentions for the James Bay region, the receptive miner seems willing to keep the lines of communication open.

As Giacovazzi conveyed to civic and Indigenous leaders in a recent visit to Thunder Bay, and emphasized again in a recent interview with Northern Ontario Business, building good relations with nearby communities and being environmentally responsible are keys to the success of any mine development.

"We want to show with Eagle's Nest that we can make mining sustainable," Giacovazzi said, referring to the most mine-ready project in Noront’s stable of deposits.

According to Noront’s project timetable, Eagle’s Nest is tentatively scheduled to start commercial production at the end of 2027. That’s largely dependent on federal and provincial environmental assessments for north-south access roads staying on schedule.

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Wyloo will have to alleviate the concerns of Indigenous people who might be on the fence about mining in the Far North, and demonstrate that there can be a balance of industrial development and environmental stewardship.

They’ll have to satisfy federal regulators with the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, now rolling out a new Regional Assessment process that will set the bar high for anyone mining in this greenfield area.

And the company will also have to demonstrate by its deeds and actions that there won't be any harm inflicted on a vast wetland ecosystem, deemed critical to the health of the planet.

That'll be on the plate of Andrew Forrest, who promised to be a hands-on owner with Eagle's Nest.

The founder of Fortescue Metals Group, one of the world’s major iron ore players, has been making global investments in green hydrogen ventures, and developing electric trains and ammonia-powered ships. 

It remains to be seen how much of that kind of initiative will be applied in Ontario. 

From afar, Wyloo viewed the high-grade Eagle's Nest nickel, copper and platinum group metals project, as a world-class mine-in-waiting but without the backing to bring it into production. 

Now with a land package of more than 156,000 hectares, that could host multiple mines, there's a smorgasbord of critical mineral commodities out there that Giacovazzi said they're keen to explore. 

He mentioned their interest in titanium and vanadium discoveries at Thunderbird Fault, 14 kilometres northeast of Eagle’s Nest, and they're excited about the gold prospectivity on the property.

On the ground this year, Giacovazzi expects a small drilling program with the bulk of their field work geared to pinpoint prospective targets for a larger drilling campaign in 2023.

The three chromite deposits, which were Noront's entry points into the North American stainless steel market, still remain relevant to Wyloo, Giacovazzi said.

Wyloo has no plans to sell them off and he suggests Wyloo could bring them into production at some point. But until Wyloo conducts their own technical and market analysis studies, any of Noront's plans for a Sault Ste. Marie ferrochrome processing plant are likely on hold.

Giacovazzi said their sole focus is proving Eagle’s Nest can be an environmentally sustainable and net-zero emissions underground operation.

Wyloo doesn't appear to be straying from Noront's mine design plan to maintain a small environmental footprint for the site.

An electric vehicle fleet will cut down on emissions, mine ventilation costs, and reduce the power load requirements. Mine waste tailings will be backfilled underground to fill voids of mined out areas. Wyloo is also intrigued by a still-developing scientific base of knowledge on whether host ultramafic rocks can sequester carbon when exposed to air.

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On the nickel processing side, Wyloo has some ideas of their own. Their former rival, BHP,  opened a new nickel sulphate plant last fall, outside of Perth.

The state-of-the-art process is a much cleaner that the traditional smelting and refining process known in the Sudbury basin, and produces a nickel crystal product that's closer to the material of what battery manufacturers would want. 

Whether that kind of plant would be built in Northern Ontario or closer to the southern Ontario car plants, Giacovazzi punted that question down the road. 

They'll lean on the findings to come from a series of feasibility studies to determine where Wyloo fits into Ontario's battery supply chain. It’ll evaluate what type of nickel sulphate they’ll produce from Ring of Fire concentrate and what processing technology to employ.

Thunder Bay, Timmins, Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie could be the mix as potential host sites, but he cautioned it's too premature to make that decision. 

"We're not sure where we want to put it. We'll certainly keep it in Ontario, I think that's a priority for us."

In their dealings with Indigenous people, Giacovazzi said Wyloo wants “grassroots conversations” with the establishment of a community engagement process to adopt the right approaches and ensure everyone’s concerns are taken into account.

His recent trip to Thunder Bay, and his meeting with Matawa First Nations leadership, was only the start of those conversations, he said. 

The company is pitching a significant Indigenous procurement plan, committing to spend $100 million on contracts with Indigenous businesses, plus the promise of a host of training and employment opportunities.

Forrest's Fortescue took the same approach a decade ago with its Billion Opportunities initiative for its mining operations in the Pilbara region in Western Australia. Since 2011, the company has awarded more than $3 billion in contracts and subcontracts to Indigenous businesses.

Expect to see more announcements on that front over the next weeks, said Giacovazzi.

“We don’t want to rush into something. We’ve got to keep building the relationship and keep understanding the environment and tailoring our initiatives to what we think is going to work best in Northern Ontario.”

The prospect of mine development in Ontario's Far North has been a polarizing issue for some time. And Wyloo is well aware of the looming national media battle for hearts and minds.  

Giacovazzi remarked at the amount of "misinformation" in online stories concerning potential mining methods, including one that Eagle’s Nest will be an open-pit operation on a scale that it will be three times the size of downtown Toronto.

Rather than face their staunchest critics head on, their position is to ignore the noise, tend to their knitting with Eagle's Nest, and let their work on the ground, and in the relationships they build, speak for itself.

"We're not going to be distracted by it," said Giacovazzi. "We're gonna stick to our guns and keep pushing ourselves on the environmental side and keep deepening the relationship we have with the communities. We're only at the start of that; we need a bit of time to build that up."