July 31, 2014 - The Ring of Fire has taken on the allure of a huge Christmas gift.
Like the children who anticipate the big day coming, Northern Ontarians are finding it painfully difficult to stop themselves from diving under the tree and ripping open the prize that awaits. But wait they must.
“We can and we will create a much better, a much stronger, Ontario and Canada through the Ring of Fire,” says Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle. “and we will do it right.”
The federal minister responsible for the Ring of Fire, Greg Rickford, said much the same when telling Canadian Press that “this is a legacy resource project and we want to get it right for the multi generations of Northern Ontarians that can benefit from this.”
It’s hard to argue with the rationale of taking the time and “getting it right.” However, there’s another determining factor at play. That factor is the reality of how mining projects usually unfold from discovery to development.
About 150 kilometers to the east of the Ring of Fire, there is the DeBeers Victor diamond mine. Access is only possible by winter road or aircraft. DeBeers had to build an ore processing mill, on-site accommodations and operational buildings, as well as a 90-kilometer hydro line and an airstrip to start up. Before that, there were time-eaters like environmental studies, agreements with First Nation Communities, training plans and hiring. Not to be forgotten is the actual digging to get at the diamonds, via a large open pit operation.
The discovery at Victor was made in 1987 by a Lakehead University geology student. Construction started in 2006.The first diamonds came out of the ground in 2007.
The Musselwhite gold mine is 275 kilometers to the west of the Ring and is also dependent on winter roads and an airstrip. The first traces of gold there were found in 1962. It took until 1986 for drilling results to warrant a mine, which didn’t produce gold until 1997.
Twenty years from discovering Victor to the first diamonds. Thirtyfive years from the first sight of gold at Musselwhite to the first golden brick being poured. At the Ring of Fire, we are only seven years in from when the rich drill results of Noront and other companies created the scenario for actual mining and we have only scratched the surface of the barriers to overcome.
All indications point to Noront’s Eagles Nest being the first operational mine in the Ring of Fire. But Eagle’s Nest will have a ramp to reach the ore body. Due to the deep and unstable muskeg at surface, the company also plans to build its processing mill underground. These are much more time-intensive construction projects than open pits and above-ground construction.
Victor and Musselwhite take the diamonds and gold out of their mine sites in a relatively small airplane.
Even after blasting, crushing and concentrating chromite and nickel, you’re left with a lot of heavy concentrate to get to a smelter. To do that, you need a substantial road, slurry pipeline or a railway are the only current options available to move that kind of volume and weight. The build time for those items will be lengthy due to the distances and ground conditions involved, not to mention the approvals needed.
The markets for gold and diamonds have also been strong and relatively stable before and since the construction of Musselwhite and Victor. The same can’t be said for other metals like nickel that have fluctuated significantly in the past several years. Will the markets determine the rate of development for the Ring? Absolutely. The unfortunate parade of unrest on various parts of the planet make investors both nervous and optimistic for the demand on the Ring’s metals. Indeed, world events and the markets are two of the major factors that control how quickly mines develop. The currency exchange rates also come into play. These factors are beyond the power of mining companies or our governments to control, therefore progress can be hindered or accelerated in unexpected degrees.
What is certain is that the metals will still be in the ground in 10 years or 100.What is debatable is whether the mining development process or our government and First Nations will be the quickest to facilitate the mineral production stage. The best time scenario is one that’s simultaneous. The best public interest scenario is that everyone gets it right.