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Thunder Bay, Fort William First Nation make the case for Ring of Fire smelter

Economic developers take Noront miners on brownfields tour

Thunder Bay and Fort William First Nation made a joint push this week to be the host site for a ferrochrome smelter serving the Ring of Fire.

Local economic development officials took representatives from Noront Resources, the biggest claimholder in the Far North mineral belt, on a tour of area industrial sites, hoping to sway the Toronto mine developer to pick northwestern Ontario for a $600-million to $800-million processing plant.

John Mason, the Thunder Bay Community Economic Development Commission’s mining services project manager, said the tour was basically to give Noront president Alan Coutts and chief development officer Steve Flewelling a better on-the-ground appreciation of what land and infrastructure is available.

The tour took them to the Grand Trunk Railway lands on the Fort William reserve and a mixture of private and government-owned parcels of waterfront brownfields in the Mission and McKellar Islands area.

“It was essentially a waterfront, or water-themed, tour,” said Mason.

Thunder Bay-Fort William is one of four cities – along with Sault Ste. Marie, Sudbury and Timmins – under consideration from Noront as a possible host community for a ferrochrome plant, which remains years away from construction.

After the tour, Coutts and Flewelling presented their development plans before an estimated crowd of 150 at the Valhalla Inn on July 19.

The promotion of the event was misconstrued by some organizations in Thunder Bay as the city being formally selected for Noront's ferrochrome plant. The company intends to make an announcement on a site later this year.

Noront has a string of nickel and chromite deposits in the James Bay lowlands, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

The mine development plan is to begin construction on the Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper deposit in 2019 – that ore would processed in Sudbury – before developing its Black Bird chromite deposit.

The high-grade chromite ore would be processed into ferrochrome, which is a key ingredient used in stainless steel production. Noront’s potential customer base is in the northeastern U.S. where those finishing facilities exist.

However, those plans are likely years away from becoming reality since there is no Ring of Fire access road in place.

Mine development in the Far North is indefinitely stalled because of lengthy and ongoing negotiations between the Ontario government and the Matawa First Nations communities. No route has been chosen.

“That was made quite clear,” said Mason. “Al (Coutts) said that again at the end of his presentation. It’s about the road.”

In an interview with Northern Ontario Business a few months ago, Coutts said his company had hoped to wrap up its pan-Northern site selection tour by late June and render a decision on a plant location by the end of summer.

Mason said company officials are now delaying that decision until late 2017. Noront officials were not immediately available for comment.

Those communities in the running for the smelter are being asked to submit their individual proposals by fall. Noront will be circulating a template to each community this month to assist in the site selection process.

Thunder Bay’s sales pitch remains a work in progress, said Mason.

“But we’re going to have a long list of assets that we’re going to be strategic about to illustrate why this is a good choice in this part of the world.” 

Noront wants a 250-acre brownfield site for a scalable operation. 

The most likely spot in the Thunder Bay area was thought to be the 1,100-acre former Grand Trunk industrial lands on the Fort William reserve, as identified in a 2013 mining readiness strategy.

That parcel of land is home to Resolute Forest Products, Coastal Steel, and various other businesses. About 800 acres are available for development.

Mason was non-committal if that land will be in their bid proposal.

“That’s certainly one of the options. There are others. We’ve got to filter through this.”

Certainly port and railway connections work in Thunder Bay’s favour.

As a major grain port at the western end of the St. Lawrence Seaway system, Thunder Bay has both CN and CP Rail connections.

Mason feels CP provides them with the best option if chromite ore, trucked out of the Ring of Fire, can be diverted at Pickle Lake onto Highway 599 and south to Ignace, where the connection can be made with CP’s main line running east to Thunder Bay.

“Could you not trans-load at Ignace? That’s the question.”

Municipal officials from the Township of Ignace were in attendance during Noront’s presentation, Mason said.

“We’ve had preliminary discussions (with them) and we see that as a solid path.”

Mason said both railways have dedicated looped tracks in the city to handle large unit trains and there’s plenty of lay-down acreage to stockpile material as well as shore-side equipment to transfer freight onto ships.

“The advantage in moving materials is one asset we’re going to present."

In an earlier interview, Coutts said U.S. stainless steel producers, who import ferrochrome from off-shore, prefer marine transport.

While Mason doesn’t believe Noront is wedded to that idea, having port facilities definitely catches their attention.

“I fully believe all four communities are on the table, but I think it really does intrigue them to have the opportunity for a connection to the Seaway.

“I don’t think it’s a deal breaker for Timmins and Sudbury, but it’s an asset for Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay.”

Good transportation and natural gas connections will be important, as well as a good power infrastructure.

Noront intends to ramp up ferrochrome production as world demand increases.

As their chromite deposits come online, the plant would eventually consume 350 megawatts of electricity, thus the need for a very robust grid to handle power spikes when melting rock at high temperatures.

The operation will eventually be comparable to the ferrochrome refinery once proposed by Cliffs Natural Resources for Sudbury, Mason said.

Power connections into the city should improve by 2020 when the North Shore East-West Tie comes into service. The underutilized Thunder Bay Generating Station also offers a distinct local advantage.

The power station has been relegated by Ontario Power Generation into a peaking plant for the Ontario grid.

“That could come into the mix,” said Mason.