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Government regulatory duplication slowing progress in the Ring of Fire

Ring of Fire Metals CEO Steve Flewelling seeks balanced, faster approach to advance Far North nickel project

Federal Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson wants to avoid government duplication with the provinces in regulations and permitting in order to bring new critical mineral mines into production quicker.

So does Ring of Fire Metals CEO Steve Flewelling.

But when it comes to proposed mine development in the James Bay region, Wilkinson insisted last month that no shortcuts will be taken in safeguarding the environment, protecting fragile peatlands, and in respecting the rights of Indigenous people and communities near any proposed mine site.

Given the glacial pace and indifference by Queen’s Park over the years in preparing for Far North development, Wilkinson's remarks don't inspire much hope that the stalled mine projects will move any faster than when nickel and chromite were first discovered in 2007-08.

Is there a balance to be struck? Flewelling thinks so.

"We're going to have to learn that responsible environmental assessment and permitting doesn't have to be slow and doesn't have to exclude the communities."

Inclement weather grounded Flewelling in Toronto, who spoke virtually to a business crowd at a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Jan. 26.

Ring of Fire Metals (formerly Noront Resources) prides itself in being the pre-eminent mining player in the Ring of Fire, holding 22 of the 26 identified mineral resources in the region and the two most advanced deposits.

The Eagle's Nest nickel and copper deposit will be the company’s first mine to be developed, ahead of their stable of chromite properties. With an estimated 18-year mine life, Eagle's Nest would produce 20 million tonnes of nickel and copper over that span. The untapped mineral potential in the region could result in mining operations for generations. 

In promoting their "green" mining approach, Flewelling explained that the low-profile underground operation will cover a surface footprint of one square kilometre. There will be no tailings ponds on surface. All waste rock will be shoved back underground into mined-out voids or deposited in excavated underground quarries.

Processing water will be recycled and reused on site. No water will be discharged into the ecosystem.

But in a virtual media scrum afterwards, Flewelling was hard-pressed to put a date on when Eagle's Nest will come into production. The federal-provincial regulatory regime sits in a state of flux, he said, when it comes to advancing big resource projects.

Ring of Fire Metals, the Canadian subsidiary of Wyloo Metals of Australia, has decided to take the initiative. Flewelling said they're submitting proposals and having discussions with regulators in Ottawa and Queen's Park on how to create a framework to get assessments done in a "timely and responsible way."

"We absolutely believe this can happen if we put our minds to it and think about what needs to change about the current process. I don't think it has to be one or the other."

Flewelling openly questions the value in requiring 1,000-page environmental assessment (EA) documents and the amount of work for regulatory agencies to review it and render a judgment. 

"I think we can expedite that."

Part of the solution, he insists, is more direct involvement by the closest and most impacted Indigenous communities –—namely Webequie and Marten Falls — to involve them "at the centre of the process," enabling them to be full project participants, not just people to be consulted.

"There's a big difference and I think it makes a massive difference."

Flewelling said there are best practices and regulatory templates out there that can be applied in the Ring of Fire.

"There are other jurisdictions where there are not conflicts with EAs and permitting and duplication of work. In Canada, there is."

Flewelling transitioned from his previous role as Noront’s chief development officer into his current position following the Toronto junior miner's takeover in April 2021 by Wyloo Metals, the mine development arm of mining magnate Andrew Forrest's Tattarang Group.

Noront had been corralling chromite, a key ingredient in stainless steel production, and intended to use the sale of Eagle's Nest-mined nickel to finance a district-scale underground complex. 

The arrival of Wyloo flipped the script with the primary focus now on nickel, today's global hot commodity. It's a key input in the manufacturing of batteries for electric vehicles and other clean-tech applications in the carbon-free economy.

But the path to mine production is determined by the construction of the road network, due to the remoteness of the mineral deposits, and by the government permitting process. 

Climate change and the shortening of the winter road season are making the importance of permanent, all-season roads an imperative for many communities.

As with Noront, Flewelling said the company's strategy remains to commence construction of Eagle's Nest in parallel with the start of the north-south access and community road network.

The timelines on the completion of the road assessments are murky at best. Flewelling wouldn’t comment further on those projects since they’re being steered by their partner communities and the provincial government.

Another looming stumbling block is Ottawa's Regional Assessment process.

Almost three years ago, then-environment minister Wilkinson called for this untried process to be applied in the Ring of Fire area to better understand the cumulative and holistic impacts of industrial development.

His successor, Steven Guilbeault, has yet to sign off on the terms of reference to officially start the process.

Some outlying communities, further away from the Ring of Fire, insist that the process must be restructured as an Indigenous-driven initiative. 

That might have been on the agenda when Guilbeault met privately with the Matawa and Mushkegowuk tribal councils in Thunder Bay last week in Thunder Bay to talk about the Ring of Fire.

Flewelling responds he’s not concerned if it’s First Nations-led. 

"The hardest part is what is the scope of the assessment and what is the purpose?

"We didn't want duplication. There's already the federal and provincial assessment(s) for appropriate project proposals.”

"Are we concerned? Yes," he said. "Can it be done so that it's complementary? I believe so. But that dialogue is still ongoing." 

Flewelling finds opinions in the communities continue to be “mixed,” some members being concerned because they don't understand the company's projects, partially fed by what Flewelling calls "misrepresentation" of their intentions.

"There's a lot of fear.”

Their vice-president of government affairs, Glenn Nolan, is focussed on developing business opportunities with First Nations while their expanded team continues to consult with nearby communities and reach out to outlying communities.

In his presentation and in the media scrum afterwards, Flewelling offered faint hope that Sault Ste. Marie still remains the "preferred" location for a ferrochrome production facility. But he gave no specifics on how and when a definitive decision will be made, except that such a facility would be located in Northern Ontario.

Nickel and the development of the Eagle's Nest mine, he maintains, is their main pursuit.

"There's interest (in the Sault) but it's not a priority."

Chromite, used in the making of stainless steel, is an "emerging" business line and they are formulating a down-the-road plan for how the North American market will shake out, he said. Flewelling added they have no interest in revisiting the old Noront city selection process.