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Tom Dodds’ new best friends dabble in the Ring of Fire

Noront bigwigs making scouting trip to the Sault
Noront Soo
Sault EDC boss Tom Dodds greets Noront Resources' Al Coutts and Steve Flewelling

Al Coutts, president of Noront Resources, swooped into Sault Ste.Marie, Nov. 4, for a tour of the city, courtesy of the Sault Ste. Marie Economic Development Corporation.

It’s not known if this is the start of a beautiful relationship with the Ring of Fire miner, but the nickel and chromite developer decided to tweet a photo of Coutts and his chief development officer, Steve Flewelling, with economic development chief executive Tom Dodds on the city‘s waterfront.

“He came out, we gave him a tour of the town,” said Dodds, “we showed him possible areas…of industrial land that would make sense to them.

“We’re walking into city hall and he says, let’s take a picture. I said, if you’re feeling inclined to publicize that you’re here, far be it for me to say no. “

Dodds cautioned that the visit was very exploratory and doesn’t want to build unrealistic expectations that the Toronto-based mine developer is in a position to target the Sault for a chromite processing operation.

“My sense of the meeting and the discussion was that it was really preliminary. He was just trying to get the lay of the land.”

Before the visit was arranged, Dodds read media reports where Coutts was quoted as saying that he had been approached by “a number of parties” from Hamilton, Sudbury Thunder Bay, Timmins and the Sault to locate potential ferrochrome smelter sites in those communities, which was news to Dodds.

So he shrugged his shoulders and decided to cold call Coutts.

Their discussion led to an invitation.

Dodds said he was briefed on Noront’s mine development plans in the Ring of Fire.

The company’s timelines are to develop its Eagle’s Nest copper-nickel mine by 2018, followed by its Blackbird chromite deposit in 2021.

Getting a mine access road from Pickle Lake into the remote mining camp is chief among their infrastructure challenges.

Any decision on breaking ground for a chromite smelter – used in the manufacturing of stainless steel – could be five years out, said Dodds.

“Their head isn’t there yet or they weren’t in a position to discuss that with us. Their big priority is getting the road.”

But Dodds said it was an excellent opportunity to showcase what the city has to offer by way of service and supply companies.

The visit included a tour of the Port of Algoma, the expansion of which is on hold until the creditor protection proceedings with Essar Algoma Steel and its port authority sister company are resolved.

“From an economic development standpoint, it’s worth our while to make them aware of what we have in Sault Ste. Marie, and that’s exactly what we did,” said Dodds.

From a transportation standpoint, the Sault is well-equipped to handle Ring of Fire ore.

Past studies by the mining companies place the southern terminus of a possible chromite ore-haul railway near the village of Nakina, located on CN’s main cross-Canada line in northwestern Ontario.

From there, ore cars could run east to Oba, then switch south onto CN track (the former Algoma Central Railway) to Sault Ste. Marie.

At the Sault, Essar Steel Algoma has more than 400 acres of brownfield land which tie into the city’s regional port plans.

Before that ever happens, Dodd said a lot of things have to fall into place before selecting a site that’s environmentally suitable and is cost-effective for Noront to operate.

“Regardless of whether the Sault is in a dire economic situation, as I said to Al, it’s got to make good business sense. It’s got to be cost-competitive and we have to more competitive than any other jurisdiction on the big picture things like electrical costs.”

No date was set up for a follow-up visit, but Dodds said the door remains open should Noront be in a position to make their next move.