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The Drift: Mining and movement in the Ring of Fire six years out, says Noront boss

Wyloo Metals preparing to put its stamp on James Bay mineral projects
Noront Alan Coutts Sudbury chamber
Noront Resources CEO Alan Coutts speaking at a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon in 2018 (File photo)

Expect 2028 to be the year when the first truckloads of nickel concentrate will be rumbling out of the James Bay lowlands to market.

That was the best educated guess from Noront Resources CEO Alan Coutts on an approximate date when the Eagle’s Nest nickel mine in the Ring of Fire will go into production.

During a Greater Sudbury Chamber of Commerce webinar on May 3, Coutts delivered an update to an online audience on the latest goings-on with the company and a basic primer on how Noront’s new Australian owners, Wyloo Metals, intend to approach development in Ontario’s Far North.

Wyloo's $616.9-million acquisition of Noront was finalized in early April.

Coutts emphasized it's "early days" in the relationship as Perth-headquartered Wyloo begins a thorough review of Noront's mineral assets in the Far North and all aspects of the company's downstream manufacturing plans and introduces itself to First Nation communities and influential politicians and business leaders

The prize for Wyloo always has been the Eagle's Nest nickel, copper and platinum group metals project, the most mine-ready of all of Noront’s holdings.

Once estimated to have a 20-year mine life, its rich and open-ended potential is what drew Wyloo to beat out rival BHP in a bidding war for Noront last year.

The Ring of Fire is an emerging mining district 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. Similar in size and mineral richness to the Sudbury Basin, this area presents a potential boon to the Canadian economy that will finance generations of businesses and people for generations to come.

“This is the scale of development we’re talking about in the Ring of Fire,” said Coutts.

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Of the 26 significant mineral discoveries in the Ring of Fire, Noront has 22 of them. Of the 35 minerals deemed critical to the Canadian government, Noront possesses nine of them.

There are slew of other commodities, including its well-known chromite deposits, but also discoveries of gold, zinc, copper, iron, titanium, vanadium and silver.

But these are stranded mineral deposits with fly-in access only, unless a 300-kilometre road can be built to deliver these discoveries to market.

Heading into a spring Ontario election, Premier Doug Ford is certainly enthused to put blades into the dirt and Coutts is hearing Ottawa may finally ante up on its long-awaited share of the road bill. The details inside the federal budget were "music to our ears," said Coutts, with a commitment from Ottawa for infrastructure on critical minerals projects.

Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations, the two communities closest to the proposed James Bay mining camp, are the road proponents and have been steering the environmental assessments (EA), underway for the past three years. The entire study process is being bankrolled by the Ontario government to the tune of $60 million.

A year’s worth of EA work was largely lost due to the pandemic in 2021 and Coutts said it will likely be two more years before the process wraps up, which will trigger the start of road building, concurrently with the construction of the Eagle’s Nest Mine.

By Noront’s own detailed estimates, Coutts said it’ll take roughly two and a half to three years to build the road.

"You're looking at maybe a five-year window to get the road infrastructure permitted and built, with a similar timeline for the mine," he said. "So you're looking at maybe six years out before production from Eagle's Nest goes down an all-season road" by 2028.

The pace of development in the Ring of Fire has been a case study in government policy and regulatory inertia with the mine project goalposts frequently being moved back.

Whether the communities can stay on the current schedule to finish the environmental assessments in three years, Coutts said, is best addressed by the communities themselves, and is largely out of Noront's control. 

"By and large they're trending along their own timelines," he said, adding he's pleased to see Marten Falls and Webequie "talking boldly" about the development opportunities ahead.

"I'm very pleased with the work to date and how it's progressing."

Coutts, a geologist and former Falconbridge executive, who joined Noront in 2013 to elevate the Toronto exploration company into a mine-builder and processor, dropped no hints on his future with Noront, which will soon be rebranded as Wyloo Canada.

He explained with the opportunistic Aussies now in house there is definitely a Wyloo culture and a certain way of doing business that comes straight from the top. 

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Wyloo is the mining investment arm of Tattarang, run by Australian mining magnate Andrew Forrest, who made his fortune building Fortescue Metals Group into the world's fourth largest iron ore producer, operating in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

Some of their best practices in Indigenous relations will be exported to Ontario, beginning with a commitment to develop a homegrown skilled workforce, drawn predominately from communities near their mining operations. They've also pledged to spend $100 million to procure supplies and services from Indigenous-run businesses.

Sourcing skilled labour will be an admitted challenge as Wyloo prepares to mount its first exploration program this year. 

Coutts mentioned that many of their own Indigenous workers, trained in the early years of Noront exploration, have moved on to better jobs in the industry. They'll be competing in the employment market with other mining companies to recruit Indigenous workers as they move into advanced exploration and eventual mine development.

But Wyloo is prepared to invest "massive resources" into a training, hiring and retention program for people living close to the mines.

"We're hiring as we speak," said Coutts of an upcoming job fair in Webequie.

When it comes to recruiting people to join the skilled trades and the mining industry, Coutts suggested a well-articulated story must be told for society at large to understand the importance of critical minerals in our daily lives, particularly in connecting young people to the coming net-zero economy and the greening of the planet, that "being part of the mining business is being part of the solution."

On the environmental side, Eagle’s Nest will be constructed as a net-zero emissions mine, meaning solar and wind energy technologies will be utilized, and electric vehicles employed, possibly with a hydrogen truck haulage fleet to move concentrate south for processing.

To minimize their footprint in the James Bay region, Eagle’s Nest will be an underground operation with the waste rock tailings stuffed back into the mined-out voids.

The entire surface project site will be less than one square kilometre, a design that was inspired by Glencore’s Nickel Rim Mine in Sudbury.

Coutts mentioned Noront management realized long ago that that approach was necessary to obtain social licence to operate in an unspoiled greenfield area and to minimize environmental disturbance. 

During Noront’s attempt to transition from an exploration company to becoming a global mining player, the company spent much money and effort on designing a ferrochrome processing plant for its chromite deposits.

When asked by an online viewer whether Wyloo will follow through with Noront's 2019 selection of Sault Ste. Marie as the site of a ferrochrome processing plant, Coutts could only say to stay tuned.

How that eventually plays out depends on the evaluations and decisions of the Wyloo team.

"I can't comment directly on that, but certainly they're very excited about the chromite opportunity. But they will be revisiting the approach and engineering, the design, all aspects of the commitment to the chrome going forward, so stand by on that one."

One nugget of information that should grab Wyloo's attention is that Noront's chromite assets are of keen interest to the U.S. government.

Coutts mentioned Noront has had direct dialogue with the U.S. Department of Trade and Commerce, adding there was "definite interest" on the chromite side of the company's business. 

The U.S. stainless steel industry imports chromite from Kazakhstan in central Asia and South Africa, two mining jurisdictions increasingly coming under Chinese influence. Coutts said they've discussed with Washington on "teaming up" to create a "domestic" chrome and ferrochrome supply chain with Canada in the fold.

As well, there could be other mineral supply opportunities with American OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) on other critical minerals coming out of the Ring of Fire.