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Noront looks for smelter landing spots in Sudbury, Timmins

Nickel City puts “best foot forward” to host Ring of Fire chromite processor

Noront Resources’ search for a home for a potential ferrochrome smelter took them to Sudbury and Timmins in mid-June.

The largest claim holder in the Ring of Fire recently tweeted photos of visits to the northeastern Ontario cities as part of a pan-Northern Ontario scan to find a suitable landing spot for a $600-million to $800-million processing plant.

Sudbury, Timmins, Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay-Fort William First Nation are in the mix to host the facility which could be years away from construction given the slow pace of development talks between the Ontario government and First Nation communities in the James Bay region.

Greater Sudbury Development Corporation (GSDC) director Ian Wood said the plant could create “several hundred” construction and permanent jobs, but he remained cautious about heightening local expectations.

The city went through the same kind of process in 2011 when Sudbury was the preferred location for a ferrochrome plant by Cliffs Natural Resources.

As with Cliffs, GSDC staff took the Noront delegation to a former mine site north of Capreol on their brownfield tour last week.

“We took them to Moose Mountain, the original Cliffs base case site, and showed them several other sites within the city. It’s very preliminary,” said Wood. “In all cases, we talked to the (property) owners. But we’re a long way from them even settling on a short list.”

The size of the plant would not be on the scale of the one originally proposed by Cliffs but would be scalable for future growth.

Noront wants to make an initial “modest” entry into the North American marketplace in mining 500,000 tonnes of chromite (about 200,000 tonnes of processed ferrochrome), enough to serve half the supply needs of U.S. stainless steel producers.

When Noront acquired Cliffs’ chromite claims in 2015 after the Ohio miner exited Ontario, they also inherited of all their technical work and logistical studies.

All of the four Northern Ontario cities in the hunt have major rail connections, power infrastructure, and an industrial workforce with a service and supply base.

In making its pitch to Noront, Wood said they emphasized the city’s mining and smelter know-how at Vale and Glencore, the specialized industrial service companies, and the local CN and CP Rail connections.

“We’ve done some work around that, in terms of their market and how they would ship, sort of reverse engineering a business case from our perspective, which pretty much mirrors what we did with Cliffs,” said Wood.

Steve Flewelling, Noront’s senior vice-president of mining and projects, is quite familiar with the city having served as Falconbridge’s (now Glencore) Sudbury mines manager from 1992 to 2000.

Two of the four cities – Thunder Bay and the Sault – have marine access to the Seaway system.

If necessary, Wood said port facilities to ship processed material to Noront’s customers in the U.S. could be arranged through Fisher Harbour near Manitoulin Island or “even Sault Ste, Marie.”

Noront Resources president-CEO Alan Coutts told Northern Ontario Business in May that he expected the site selection process to wrap up by the end of June with a decision made by summer’s end.

Wood believes that timeline could be extended.

“I’m hearing that it will probably stretch out a little bit. My understanding is that they will have something more to say in terms of process, but that’s for the company to say.”

Even if Sudbury misses out on the chromite processing, the city is at least assured of getting Noront’s nickel and copper production.

Noront wants to bring its Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper deposit into production first, beginning in 2021, followed by the start of construction of its Blackbird chromite deposit.

“Noront has said for several years, and again this time, that it (nickel-copper) was coming to Sudbury as have we have the smelters. But they didn’t indicate they had anything nailed down at this point,” said Wood.

“All of the communities will put their best foot forward as will we. I’m not sitting their board room building their business case. They have to do their analysis for what that cost structure looks like, and I’m sure they will do that for all four scenarios.

“I think we have a great shot on the intangibles, quite frankly, given the community’s capacity and the fact that we are the host of two smelters. They know that the community understands the economic benefits of this and is likely to embrace it, just as the community rallied to embrace the Cliffs (proposal).

“But the intangibles don’t change the numbers. They need to do their due diligence and we’re going to give them every piece of information that we can that helps them make that decision.”

When contacted about Noront’s visit to Timmins, Christy Marinig, CEO of the Timmins Economic Development Corporation, declined comment.

That city has a former smelter site, the Kidd Metallurgical Site, which closed in 2010 and was later demolished, and a new rail industrial park on Hallnor Road with service from the Ontario Northland Railway.