Two heavyweight consulting firms have been selected to do the environmental assessment (EA) studies for the second leg of the proposed Ring of Fire road, from Marten Falls to Webequie.
SNC-Lavalin and Dillon Consulting were selected through a competitive bid process announced in a joint news release by Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation, the two community road proponents, on Jan. 28.
Dubbed the Northern Road Link, the proposed 200-kilometre-long road would run from just west of Marten Falls north to connect to the 107-kilometre Webequie Supply Road. The latter road runs east from the Webequie Airport to the McFaulds Lake area where exploration activity is taking place.
The Northern Link is part of the proposed north-south into the James Bay region that would connect the two isolated communities to the provincial road network for the first time, and also provide land access into the high-grade nickel, chromite and other riches of the Ring of Fire mineral belt.
Noront Resources wants to use the road to truck ore south to processing sites in Sault Ste. Marie and Sudbury.
The EA studies are expected to take three years to complete and, according to the news release, will be a combined process, meeting both federal and provincial environmental assessment requirements, according to the news release.
Last March, the two communities and the provincial government agreed to proceed with the planning and development of the road, a critical piece of infrastructure to truck nickel and chromite ore out of the Ring of Fire and bring supplies overland into the communities and the future mining camp.
The Ring of Fire is 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay in the remote James Bay lowlands, and contains a vast, rich and untapped mineral camp of world-class chromite, nickel, copper, gold and palladium deposits.
In a statement, Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum called the proposed road "an economic lifeline for our communities and it will bring jobs, training and prosperity where our youth currently have no opportunities."
Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse added SNC-Lavalin and Dillon Consulting are well acquainted with community principles on issues of economic development in taking on this "highly sensitive project that requires the most rigorous studies related to environmental, water, climate change, and cumulative effects."
Earlier, SNC-Lavalin was hired to handle the environmental and engineering support for the supply road.
The north-south Ring of Fire road network will involve the construction of an all-season two-lane gravel road with bridges, culverts, aggregate pits and quarries, with construction camps with laydown area and space for contractors.
The start date for the actual road construction has always been a moving target due to inadequate government consultation processes with area First Nations.
Noront Resources, the leading mine developer in the region, expects to be in production with its first operation, the Eagle's Nest nickel mine, by the middle of 2025.
But there are other factors in play, specifically how extensive or prolonged Ottawa's new federal impact assessment process will be.
When queried if this means Noront will have to push back its mine project schedules, company president Alan Coutts responded by email that they remain "very pleased to see the EA process for the Northern Road Link advancing. We will adjust our timelines, if required, once we see the scope of the work and get a sense of how fast it’s progressing.”
Provincial consultation continues with area First Nations to go over the terms of reference, or the upcoming work plan, for how the assessment process for both roads will be conducted.
The province recently accommodated a request from nearby Neskantaga First Nation to extend the consultation deadline for both the Marten Falls Road (March 31) and the Supply Road (Feb.26) to give communities, hampered by pandemic restrictions, additional time to provide comment.
"We respect the measures taken to protect the health and well-being of your community," Kathleen O'Neill, director of the environmental assessment branch, with the ministry of the environment, conservation and parks, said in a Jan. 25 letter to Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias.
"The ministry continues to be aware of the challenges faced by all in light of the pandemic and appreciates the efforts communities have made to adapt to the situation."