VANCOUVER — Noront Resources (TSXV: NOT) is encouraged that the Ring of Fire camp in northern Ontario, where the junior has its remote Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper and platinum group metal (PGM) deposit, has been designated a priority in Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Sept. 23 mandate letter to re-appointed Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle.
The most specific item in the letter is an instruction to Gravelle to “work towards upgrading existing roads and infrastructure in the region to connect with future Ring of Fire infrastructure, with a target of 2018 to begin road work.”
The nearest paved road from Eagle’s Nest is 280 km to the south, and Noront is looking for the provincial government to pay for and build an all-season, all-access road into the Eagle’s Nest site, which is the leading contender to be the first deposit mined in the camp.
Noront’s proposed road would use an existing East-West winter road corridor just north of Pickle Lake, where the paved highway ends, and pass by four remote communities before connecting to a main trunk road that would service the Ring of Fire.
“What we’d like to see is the government table a proposal that industry and First Nations can then gather around and fine-tune towards the ultimate infrastructure,” Alan Coutts, president and CEO of Noront, tells The Northern Miner during a phone interview. “There’s a number of communities that would really stand to benefit from the road, so it’s really now about nutting out the final alignment.”
Nine First Nation groups would be impacted by any mining activities in the Ring of Fire. The Webequie, Marten Falls and Neskantaga groups would be the closest to Noront’s proposed mine, whereas the others, including Aroland, are farther away.
In response to the premier’s letter, the Marten Falls and Aroland First Nations issued a statement directed to Premier Wynne, Noront and KWG Resources (TSXV: KWG; USOTC: KWGBF) — another junior explorer in the district — asserting their jurisdictional authority in the region.
“Noront is legally obligated to establish consultation agreements with our First Nations and conduct, with us at the table, a review of alternative transportation options. So far, that is not happening,” Chief Dorothy Towedo of Aroland First Nation said in the Oct. 5 statement.
Chief Bruce Achneepineskum of Marten Falls said Noront is “proposing a side deal with Ontario that would bypass those legal obligations and, more importantly, avoid inclusive First Nation consultation. Meanwhile, KWG Resources continues to advance its transportation study with no First Nation consultation overtop of mining claims in our territories. These are mining claims on which KWG has no intention to explore for mineral resources and/or actually mine.”
(Achneepineskum’s comments are in reference to KWG’s subsidiary, Canada Chrome Corporation, which in 2010 staked a 330 km-long string of mining claims to create a potential transportation corridor linking KWG and Noront’s Big Daddy chromite deposit to a CN Rail line near Nakina, Ontario.)
Coutts concedes that discussions between the various groups can be “tricky.”
“Everyone is excited and wants to be part of the process and we think it’s great,” he says. “We view any development in the Ring of Fire as being a way to build sustainable communities in the north. But ultimately it’ll be up to the First Nations themselves to determine who’s going to take the lead and who has the priority. We’re not in the position to make those decisions; it’s something they’ll decide amongst themselves.”
Because the Eagle’s Nest project is only at an early stage in terms of any mine development, he adds, formal consultation with First Nations “will certainly start getting serious” if the company decides to move Eagle’s Nest towards production.
According to the project’s feasibility study published by Micon International in 2012, an underground mine at Eagle’s Nest would produce 1 million tonnes of ore per year over an 11-year mine life, with the potential for 9 more years if inferred resources are converted into reserves. The mine would ship out concentrate by road or rail.
Eagle’s Nest hosts proven and probable reserves of 11.1 million tonnes of 1.68% nickel, 0.87% copper, 0.89 gram platinum per tonne, 3.09 grams palladium per tonne and 0.18 gram gold per tonne. Inferred resources stand at 9 million tonnes of 1.1% nickel, 1.14% copper, 1.16 grams platinum, 3.49 grams palladium and 0.3 gram gold.
Coutts says the deposit stands out from other magmatic nickel-copper deposits, such as those in Ontario’s Sudbury Basino or Vale’s Voisey’s Bay deposit in Labrador, because of its “hefty” PGM credits, which makes Eagle’s Nest one of the “higher-grade magmatic nickel-copper deposits identified in the world.”
Capital expenditures for the project weighed in at $609 million, which didn’t include any cost for road infrastructure.
“Our assumption is that the province will pay for the road infrastructure. However we’ll be charged a toll per tonne to use it, so in our economic evaluations we’ve included those charges,” he says.
If Eagle’s Nest ever gets up and running, Noront could then develop the adjacent Blackbird chromite deposit, which has 20.5 measured and indicated million tonnes of 35.8% chromium oxide and inferred resources of 23.5 million tonnes of 33.1% chromium oxide.
The company controls 800 sq. km of prospective stratigraphy, or 75% of the staked claims in the region, and continues to explore for nickel, copper and zinc.
“Right now metal prices price are low and there’s not a lot of interest, so we’ve decided to take advantage of that by consolidating the land package in the belt. When infrastructure gets built and the market recovers we’ll be the company that’ll be at the forefront on the development of the Ring of Fire. That’s our strategy and we’re sticking to it,” Coutts says.