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Which Way to Ring of Fire? As Cliffs stands down, Noront and KWG propose alternate transport routes

It’s a suspension, not a cancellation. Yet the June 12 announcement from Cliffs Natural Resources dumped cold water all over Ontario’s Ring of Fire. By putting the region’s largest project on hold, the company has also shelved plans for an all-weather road to the south, a vital link some other companies were counting on to develop the McFaulds Lake area about 540 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. But Noront Resources [V.NOT] quickly responded that its own projects are “still good to go” thanks to a proposed east-west road. Not to be outdone, KWG Resources [V.KWG] pursues the feasibility of north-south rail.

Seemingly a Plan B, Noront’s east-west corridor was actually the company’s first idea. It would link the Eagle’s Nest project to Highway 808, roughly 230 kilometres southwest. But in May 2012, the Ontario government conditionally agreed to help finance the north-south route, part of Cliffs’ $3.3-billion proposal to build the Black Thor mine with road access to a new processing facility near Sudbury. On that basis, Noront used the north-south route in the base case for the September 2012 Eagle’s Nest feasibility study. Noront retained the east-west route as back-up.

Prudently, it now seems. Explaining the suspension of what would have been North America’s first major chromite mine, Cliffs’ senior vice-president of global ferroalloys Bill Boor said, “Certain critical elements of the project’s future are not solely within our control and require the active support and participation by other interested parties such as government agencies and impacted first nation communities.”

Reacting to Cliffs’ suspension, Noront chairman/interim CEO Paul Parisotto said his company’s east-west proposal “balances first nations objectives, the environment and job growth. We’re confident this alternative will be attractive to each level of government, the local communities and the people who will benefit from this sensible approach.”

The route would upgrade an existing winter road to all-weather status. Among its advantages, it “avoids provincial parks, avoids areas of special interest to aboriginal groups and provides the greatest benefit to first nation communities,” the feasibility report stated. The native bands are currently served by air travel and winter road.

With Cliffs temporarily out of action, Noront emerges as the regional bigshot. Its Eagle’s Nest project achieved feasibility last September, using an 8% discount rate to calculate an after-tax net present value of $543 million and a 28% internal rate of return. With initial capital costs of $160 million, payback would come after three years of the 11-year mine life for a project showing:

proven reserves of 5.26 million tonnes averaging 2.02% nickel, 1.04% copper, 1.01 grams per tonne platinum, 3.45 g/t palladium and 0.19 g/t goldprobable reserves of 5.87 million tonnes averaging 1.38% nickel, 0.72% copper, 0.78 g/t platinum, 2.76 g/t palladium and 0.18 g/t gold.

Less than two kilometres away, the company’s Blackbird project has a March 2012 resource showing:!/p

Noront PR rep Janice Mandel tells ResourceClips two levels of government know about the company’s east-west proposal. “Noront’s been talking to the provincial government and the federal government, and the environmental assessment has been underway for a while, so there have been lots of discussions. But [Ontario’s] formal proposal had been made with Cliffs.”

She added that Goldcorp [T.G] has shown interest in Noront’s proposal as a route for transmission infrastructure. The major’s fly-in/fly-out Musselwhite mine lies roughly 130 kilometres southwest of Eagle’s Nest and Blackbird.

NOT’s not got the only transportation alternative, however. In February rival chromite explorer KWG Resources released a study that found rail more expensive to build but much cheaper to operate than road. The Tetra Tech report estimated a rail capex of $1.56 billion, compared to a road capex of $1.05 billion, to build a 330-kilometre route to the CN [T.CNR] mainline at Nakina. But assuming annual shipment of three million tonnes, rail would cost $10.50 a tonne compared to $60.78 for road. At five million tonnes a year, rail estimates plunge to $6.33 a tonne while road estimates dip just slightly to $59.28. Road operating costs “are more sensitive to market fluctuations and increase significantly with expanding operations,” according to the study.

Through its subsidiary Canada Chrome Corp, KWG has staked a 330-kilometre line of mining claims from its Big Daddy chromite deposit to rail and road infrastructure to the south. The company now has a railway engineering firm conducting a pre-feasibility study on the route.

KWG holds a 30% interest in Big Daddy, with Cliffs holding the remainder. In another Ring of Fire chromite property, KWG may earn 80% of the Black Horse project by funding Bold Ventures’ [V.BOL] drill program. Bold optioned the property from Fancamp Exploration [V.FNC] last January. Fancamp still holds the McFaulds Lake property adjacent to Noront’s Eagle’s Nest.

Among other players in the immediate area, MacDonald Mines Exploration [V.BMK] is now drilling its Butler VMS project, a polymetallic discovery 36 kilometres west of Big Daddy. Between Black Thor and Big Daddy, Probe Mines’ [V.PRB] Black Creek chromite deposit hosts a 2010 resource showing:

measured and indicated categories totalling 8.64 million tonnes averaging 37.41% chromite with a Cr:Fe ratio of 1.8an inferred category of 1.61 million tonnes averaging 37.78% with a Cr:Fe ratio of 1.7.

Whether it’s east-west, north-south, road or rail, transportation is just one of the concerns facing Ring of Fire development. Without citing its own challenges with current metal prices, Cliffs blamed its Black Thor suspension on delays in provincial environmental approval, legal action from native bands, unresolved surface rights issues and unfinished agreements with the province “that are critical to the project’s economic viability.”

Following the company’s announcement, Ontario’s New Democratic Party slammed the Liberal government, saying its “mismanagement of the Ring of Fire could cost Ontario thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic growth.”

But Ontario Minister of Northern Development and Mines Michael Gravelle reaffirmed his party’s support for the region’s development. “While Cliffs has notified the Ministry of the Environment that it plans to suspend its environmental assessment process, the company has not withdrawn its terms of reference, which [are] currently before the ministry for review,” he said.

Last February CN suspended its feasibility study on a $5-billion, 800-kilometre rail line to the Labrador Trough iron ore range due to “current market realities.”

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