By Ian Ross
A potential bonanza may be awaiting residents in the Hearst area with exploration work underway on a sizeable phosphate deposit north of the community.
Known as the Martison Phosphate Project, the site, 50 kilometres due north of the town, is still believed to be in the initial stages of exploration by MCK Mining Corporation and Baltic Resources.
Hearst Mayor Jean-Marie Blier says if exploration were ever to progress into an operating mine it would be "the great news for this millennium"
Though located in a remote area, the exploration site is accessible from Highway 11 by a 90-kilometre series of logging roads.
Blier says active exploration work has been ongoing by MCK for the last two years, though the community has received little word on the status of exploration. He last spoke with MCK officials last fall prior to their winter drilling program. A chance to diversify the local economy and possibly provide dozens of well-paying mining jobs would be welcome news in the community of 6,000 which relies on forestry giants such as Columbia Forest Products to be the pillars of industry.
Hearst residents need not look far down the road to see how Agrium's open pit phosphate mine near Kapuskasing created close to 200 direct jobs for that community. The Martison deposit is about 110 kilometres north of Agrium's operations.
Agrium's Kapuskasing phosphate open pit and mill operation supplies the company's Redwater, Alberta facility with concentrated ore used for fertilizer.
Beginning operations in 1999, it represented a huge investment for Agrium and Ontario Northland. Agrium invested more than $70 million to establish the mine and build the mill and the rail spur. The railway spent $22 million on the spur line to move the reserve of 22 million tonnes for the next two decades. The mine employs about 170.
Ann Wilson, a provincial district geologist in Timmins, says the Martison property sits amid a weathered carbonatite complex of phosphate-rich igneous rocks, of which there are about 40 similar deposits located in the province.
Since the 1940s companies such as Shell Oil and Falconbridge Ltd. have periodically drilled the area exploring for nickel, uranium and various other commodities, Wilson says. But nothing was ever written about any exploration ever approaching the feasibility stage. Provincial geologists had identified the area as a prime target in the 1970s, and since the 1980s the area has been actively explored.
Wilson says interest at Martison Lake really caught fire when the feasibility study at the Agrium deposit moved forward in 1995, prompting MCK mining to move ahead with exploration in 1997.
Most of the previous drilling activity at Martison had been concentrated on the northern body, with a deposit estimated to be 113 million tonnes. The winter of 2001 drilling program focused on a southern body about four kilometres to the south to determine the grade of phosphate.
Wilson says the south property had an even higher grade (23 per cent) than the north body (21 per cent), though there has not been a full assessment of the property.
"The last published grade of the reserve at (Agrium's) Kapuskasing deposit was 28 per cent, so it's close, but they're still exploring at Martison, so the grade may come up if the southern body is higher," Wilson says.
According to a February 2001 MCK release, the project also includes the development of a fertilizer chemical plant to produce 400,000 tonnes of ore annually from the deposit. When processed and mixed with sulphuric acid available from Ontario smelters, the resource will produce a concentrate capable of sustaining the plant for more than 25 years.
When contacted at his Toronto office, MCK Mining Corporation president Stephen Case had little to say beyond what the earlier press releases had indicated, nor would he elaborate on any future advanced exploration plans or development beyond their winter drill program.
"We're not the developer; a third party will be the ultimate developer," says Case. "And it would be premature to
talk about any bulk-sampling program at this time."