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The Drift: 15 years after Ring of Fire discovery, mining timeline no clearer

Ring of Fire Metals prepares for big exploration push as critical minerals supply crunch looms

There’s new ownership, new branding and a new name for the former Noront Resources in the Ring of Fire. But the path to start mining in Ontario’s Far North doesn’t look to be getting any shorter.

After being shuttered for more than a year, field exploration activity is picking up again at the remote Esker camp of Ring of Fire Metals, the new name on the marquee as chosen by Wyloo Metals of Australia following its acquisition of Noront last April.

Steve Flewelling, acting CEO for Ring of Fire Metals, called the camp’s reopening a “great opportunity for us to get back on track.” Noront had closed the camp for the winter in September 2021 in the midst of the bidding war between Wyloo and BHP.

Wyloo Metals, the mining investment arm of Tattarang, a holding company for Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, is making investments to upgrade the camp, located some 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, in order to to run year-round.

Forty-four employees and contractors are at the site, half being Indigenous folks from the surrounding First Nation communities, as far away as Attawapiskat. 

Flewelling, a mining engineer and Noront’s former chief development officer, talked recently about the new company’s upcoming plans over the next few months.

They have a raft of things to do this winter, including environmental assessment work, First Nations consultation, and updating a 10-year positive feasibility study of its Eagle’s Nest deposit, the most mine-ready project in the company fold.

Discovered in 2007, it’s regarded as one of the highest grade nickel, copper and platinum group metals discoveries in the world, and is why Wyloo landed in Ontario in the first place.

It’s a 20-milllion-tonne deposit that’ll deliver a million tonnes of production a year over a 20-year operating life.

But Flewelling and Wyloo are supremely confident there are few more Eagle’s Nests to be found on their 156,000 hectares of exploration ground.

They’re budgeting for a big exploration push in 2023, working from a list of more than 70 nickel targets.

“We’re basically gearing up the targeting program so that hopefully we can drill significantly more metres in the future on what we think is a lot of very progressive opportunities in the nickel space to find additional nickel mines in the Ring of Fire,” he said.

To carry out that work, they’ll need plenty of provincial exploration permits, many of which they’re still waiting on. The permitting process requires the government's duty to consult with area First Nations.

“It’s a challenge right now, getting through the consultation process, and the timeframes are unfortunately way longer than we’d hope they’d be,” Flewelling said.

Asked to place a date when nickel mining will start in the Ring of Fire, Flewelling said that's a difficult call to make. The reason being there’s no definitive timetable when a 200-kilometre north-south road to the Ring of Fire will be ready. 

Roads are critical to all activity in the Ring of Fire. Nickel concentrate will have to be trucked out from the mine to smelters and refineries in the south. The timing of completion of the road building and the start of mining production must come together.

“Given that you we’re contingent on the road, I think it's a bit difficult to give a (date) on Eagle’s Nest production when you know it follows the road path,” said Flewelling.

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The status of the road network is that it still remains in the detailed engineering and environmental assessment (EA) stage, led by two area First Nations, Marten Falls and Webequie.

At an open house held in Thunder Bay last August on the Northern Road Link, the third and final leg of the road network, organizers said the EA process could run from three to seven years, a timeframe recently confirmed by a community project manager.

“Obviously, we’re trying to work with the community (Webequie)," said Flewelling, "to shorten that time frame as much as possible and make it (the schedule) more concrete than three to seven (years). That’s quite the range.”

Wyloo's takeover of Noront last April marked a shift in exploration strategy from pursuing chromite — used in the making of stainless steel — to nickel, a much coveted battery metal used in electric vehicles.

While Western governments, including Ontario and Canada, are scurrying to secure domestic supply chains of critical minerals, much work remains to streamline the regulatory environment to enable shovel-ready mine projects to be put into production quicker.

Building a gigafactory to manufacture batteries for the electric vehicles takes two years. Obtaining the government permit approvals to build a mine can be a three- to five-year process.

Attempting to build a mine in an environmentally sensitive area like the James Bay region, where there’s never been industrial development of any kind, much less permanent roads, brings on a whole new level of scrutiny.

“That’s optimistic in my view,” said Flewelling. “Three to five years is going be really challenging, depending on the scale of the mine. It's worse than that even because of some of the federal requirements as well.”

Reducing permit wait times and cutting regulatory red tape remain main issues for new provincial Mines Minister George Pirie. 

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But more regulatory uncertainty for the industry is still emanating from Ottawa.

In February 2020, then-federal Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson called for a Regional Assessment (RA) of the Ring of Fire. It’s a new process to inform federal agencies on understanding the wider cumulative impact that industrial development will have on the region.

According to a spokesperson for the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IACC), the RA process isn’t a mechanism for project approvals, it’s simply an “information source” for government to consider in “future impact assessments.”

Yet two and half years after Wilkinson’s announcement, the RA process, with an agreed-upon work plan, has yet to officially start.

IACC said the draft agreement between the feds and the province hasn’t been signed and the terms of reference haven’t been finalized.

And there is “no prescribed timeline” to establish a terms of reference. That call resides with federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault. The spokesperson couldn't immediately say if Guilbeault has made a decision and specified a timeline.

Fifteen years after the discovery of Eagle’s Nest, how much patience Wyloo will exhibit remains to be seen. 

“I think they’ll be patient for the right reasons,” said Flewelling. “You don’t want to be passive — patience is one thing, passive is different thing. I think they’ll be constructively patient where it makes sense to be.”

On what assurances they can offer that mining won’t degrade the environment, Flewelling said what’s lost in the Far North development debate is the actual size of their Eagle's Nest project.

“You have to look at what we’re developing.”

Ontario’s Far North comprises more than 400,000 square kilometres, he said. The footprint of the mine will take up less than a square kilometre of space. No bigger than the size of its current exploration camp.

On the sustainability front, Eagle’s Nest is designed to be a zero-emissions mine, incorporating the latest mining technologies and best practices.

“We want to make it as all-electric as we can,” said Flewelling. “All of the functions outside power generation we intend to (make) electric and have no carbon emissions.”

The company is talking about deploying electric vehicles underground, using hydrogen-fuelled haul trucks, and incorporating wind power.

With no powerlines nearby, the challenge on how to produce clean energy for the camp, outside of resorting to diesel generation, is “something that we’re looking at,” said Flewelling.

Ontario has a strong desire to extend the power distribution network to the James Bay region, and “obviously we’ll take advantage of that whenever that’s possible.”

All water used in mine processing will be recycled on-site. Waste rock will be back-filled underground in mined-out areas instead of being landfilled on surface in a tailings impoundment area. 

The mining of chromite, Noront’s original claim to fame in the Ring of Fire, still remains in the company’s future plans. Chromite is regarded by Wyloo as a long-term resource and they have no intention of selling off those assets. But it's a "second priority at the moment" to nickel, Flewelling said.

“Ultimately, we’ll want to develop the chromite mine."

Despite the challenges ahead, Flewelling acknowledged many doubts whether a junior explorer in Noront ever had the resources and financial backing to pull off such an ambitious project. 

“Having Wyloo on board brings a sense that this can be done. You’ve got a well-established, well-backed entity, and I think should take doubt out of anybody’s mind that, is this really possible to do by a junior mining company? 

“I think that’s totally changed,” he said.

Over time, with the promises made by Wyloo and Andrew Forrest toward training and procurement, the market and Indigenous communities will realize “that these are people who committed to do things in a responsible way, and at the same time want to get it done.”