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Digging into the Ring of Fire

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Oh the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair that has occurred in various media outlets and around the province since news broke that Cliffs will suspend indefinitely its Chromite Project in northern Ontario. It wasn't a surprise to those of us who follow global market prices, corporate boardrooms and here at home the environmental assessment processes. The project had been sputtering for quite some time.

With news of the indefinite suspension by Cliffs, there has been a lot of finger pointing and apportioning of blame. But I think this is a distraction from bigger, more important issues such as how should Ontario develop its non-renewable resources in the Ring of Fire? "The Ring" is more than Cliffs after all. How should we address neighbouring First Nations decades long infrastructure needs? How do we make sure the Ekwan, Attawapiskat and Albany Rivers will be clean and healthy forever? How do we all make best use of limited public resources? How do we ensure there is transparency and integrity around decision-making and that First Nations are respected?

There are some who think the solution lies in "speeding up the process" for new mines to go ahead in the Ring of Fire. We've been there, done that, and bought the T-shirt, thank you very much. Efforts to speed things up over the past four years have resulted in lawsuits, conflicts, wasted resources, bitter feelings and delays.

It's time for all of us to take a deep breath and turn our attention to designing a thoughtful regional strategic environmental assessment so that the ecosystems in this area can be maintained, First Nations respected and industry can finally get the certainty it seeks. It's not the job of a company to do it (although their participation is needed). The province has to take the lead and Canada needs to play a constructive role.
One of the factors Cliffs stated a few months ago that was impeding its progress was the "delayed approval of the Terms of Reference" for the provincial Environmental Assessment (EA) process. In our view, Ontario was acting properly by not approving the Terms of Reference (ToR) that Cliffs proposed. As our group, CPAWS Wildlands League, and others pointed out, their proposed ToR was woefully inadequate to meet the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act. We officially submitted a mediation request with the company through the Ministry of Environment.

Regarding the "uncertainty" of the federal EA process due to the then judicial challenge by a number of the impacted First Nations, if Cliffs had agreed to send the project to a joint review panel instead of fighting it in court, the EA process could have been completed by last summer. But instead a lot of the company's and First Nations' resources were spent fighting over the EA in court.

And another issue cited by Cliffs for pulling the plug was that Ontario had not completed agreements critical to the project's economic viability, such as building an all-season road. In our view, it was premature and risky for Ontario to promise to design and build a north-south road in the absence of a widely supported plan for the region. If Ontario had agreed, it would also have pre-empted the environmental assessment processes and raised questions about the integrity of the EA which is supposed to be based on sound science regarding the ecosystems and be robust in terms of decision making, alternatives and transparency.

At the end of the day though these are not the reasons Cliffs pulled out, money and a new CEO were.
It makes sense for a new CEO to come in and shore up the company's core business, iron ore, before pouring more money into something new, chromite. Also the winds of change in the global market will surely shift again and demand is expected to pick up in three to five years. We need to be ready. Cliffs and/or some other company will want to move in to extract the chromite deposits. And don't forget Noront is still chugging along with its Eagle's Nest project to exploit its nickel, copper, platinum and palladium deposit.

It's a never a smart idea for the future of a region to be determined by a single company through its project-level environmental assessment. The Ring of Fire mineral deposits are located in an expansive and largely undisturbed boreal ecosystem containing globally significant forests, rivers and wetlands. The remote First Nations within the region have large traditional territories with tremendous social pressures. They are not going to accept anyone pulling more wealth out of the territory without getting their needs addressed too. This area has never been the subject of a strategic assessment, environmental study, or comprehensive planning because no Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (RSEA) has been conducted. First Nations, scientists and not-for-profit conservation groups have been asking for one for quite some time now.

The best thing for Ontario to do would be to get that going.


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