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TABLE OF CONTENTS Nov 12 - 18, 2012 Volume 98 Number 39 - 0 comments

Ontario's 'Ring of Fire' courts controversy from railway union, aboriginal groups

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By: Adrian Pocobelli

Members of the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission (ONTC), a crown agency in charge of maintaining transportation and communications in Northern Ontario, voted unanimously in favour of a proposal by the General Chairperson’s Association (GCA), which represents unionized employees, that would prevent the privatization of the beleaguered Ontario Northland railway. 

The so-called “new deal” would see the ONTC and its assets transferred from the province to the federal government in a newly created ports authority — the James Bay and Lowlands Ports Trustee Corp. — which would operate under the Canadian Marine Act.

The GCA believes Northwestern Ontario’s resource-rich Ring of Fire offers an opportunity to save ONTC jobs by providing railway infrastructure to the rapidly growing region, which is thought to contain North America’s biggest supply of chromite, an essential ingredient in stainless steel.

The government of Ontario has been shutting down the heavily subsidized Ontario Northlander train passenger service, as a result of a decline in ridership and rising costs, which had tallied up to a loss of $400 per ride. According to the Toronto Star, in the last fiscal year, the railway lost $10.8 million on $160 million of revenue, with pensions accounting for $18.5 million in costs. As a result, the railway was terminated on Sept. 28 in favour of a streamlined service that focused on bus transportation, while ONTC Chair Ted Hargreaves announced plans to “tender all assets of the corporation for sale to the private sector.”

Brian Stevens, a GCA representative, claims the union’s new proposal would “save transportation services and hundreds of existing jobs in the North, while also creating thousands more jobs by providing access to the Ring of Fire.” However, details of the deal remain vague, as few specifics were shared in the group’s Oct. 19 press release. Laura Blondeau, spokesperson for Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci, told the Timmins Press that “we have asked to see the proposal, and they have sent us the press release they issued and communications products, but we don’t really know the plan or how it will be implemented.”

The Ring of Fire’s chromite deposit is considered the fourth largest in the world, and is thought to have the potential to alter North America’s steel industry, which imports chromite from offshore. Once mined, chromite can be processed into ferrochrome, a product used to create stainless steel. With steady chromite demand out of India and China, and a lack of supply in North America, the prospect of a large-scale chromite mine has generated a fair amount of hype, with Premier Dalton McGuinty stating that it could “rival Alberta’s oilsands” in a letter to Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier this year.

Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources (CLF-N) is the most active company in the Ring of Fire with the development of its large Black Thor chromite project. Cliffs is looking to spend $3.3 billion to build a mine and toll road to service the isolated area — a rival plan that could block GCA’s railway proposal. Cliffs is also planning a $1.8-billion smelting plant near Sudbury.

But developing the road still has its share of problems, not least of which includes pressure from aboriginal groups, many of whom have felt left out of the consultation process, even though the road would pass through treaty lands. One of the most vocal opposition leaders, Neskantaga Chief Peter Moonias, believes Cliffs’ proposed bridge over the Attawapiskat River would disturb the cultural and environmental habitat that houses the graves of his ancestors. Moonias defiantly told CBC News in May that “if they want to cross that river, they’re going to have to kill me first.” The controversy has intensified in recent weeks since Lakehead University archeologist Scott Hamilton claimed that the site is a “seasonal gathering place” of historical relevance.

Environmentalists have also voiced concerns about the development, with the CPAWS Wildlands League asking the government to create a “regional plan” that would minimize the impact on the area’s wildlife, including caribou and fish.

Cliffs is about midway through an environmental assessment under the federal and provincial environmental assessment acts.

Although the miner had once intended to open a producing mine in 2015, the process had already been delayed by a negotiation with the government of Ontario over electrical power, pushing the project to at least 2016.

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