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Retrieving metals from the Ring of Fire through the value chain into battery vehicles has always been Noront Resources vision

Sep 6, 2022

By Kevin Vincent Mining Life

There’s a heightened excitement about the Ring of Fire and the company in the center of the crosshairs is elevating its cautious optimism.  That optimism is fueled by the Ontario government’s decision to appoint a Mines Minister, George Pirie, with a specific mandate to develop the Ring of Fire.

Ryan Weston, VP of Exploration at Wyloo Metals – the biggest player in the Ring of Fire, says the mandate is not a huge surprise. “Obviously, when you hear Doug Ford campaigning in this most recent election and talking a lot about the Ring of Fire and critical minerals, he wants to go from mines to electric vehicle batteries. He's got two major investments coming on the battery production side that have been announced in the last six months. So, he wants the full spectrum of value there from mining.”

Weston points out that there's a lot of nickel that is produced in the Sudbury Basin and a lot of that goes to different markets. “And so, it’s questionable how much will go to the battery metal space, right? There are a lot of critical minerals in the Ring of Fire. And when you look at the United States and the Canadian lists, I think we've got seven different metals. But nickel is the important one because that's the metal that gives the density to battery electric vehicles.”

Weston says getting the metal from the Ring of Fire through the value chain into battery vehicles is a vision Noront Resources (which was purchased by Wyloo earlier this year) has had for some time. “It's quite something that the province now has the critical minerals strategy. So, I'm not surprised at all that Minister Pirie has that as a mandate. And it's a challenging file. As we know, it's a new region that requires extensive infrastructure to be able to access. So, it's the sort of thing that you kind of do have to tie a mandate around if it's important enough in order to move the needle.”

Notwithstanding Pirie’s appointment, Weston says it hasn’t caused Wyloo to make any major adjustments in terms of their strategy or approach to the multi-billion dollar deposits.

No Road, No Ring of Fire.

“We are supporting the road projects that are being led by Marten Falls and Webequie; they are the proponents for those roads and without a road, there's no mines in the Ring of Fire. Everything about mining in the Ring of Fire is tied to the timeline and the development of the roads. We've been supporting them since day one and we'll continue to support them.”

Weston says the previous mines minister Greg Rickford was very supportive of the communities in moving that forward. “And now the new minister, Pirie, was just up in Webequie meeting with Chief Bruce and Chief Cornelius up there. So no, our strategy doesn't really change. We work closely with the communities, and closely with the government.”

What has changed fundamentally for Noront in the last six months is that they are owned by Wyloo Metals, and they don't have the same financial constraints they had previously. “We're operating in a challenging jurisdiction logistically. It's fly-in, fly-out. You're dealing with the wetlands which are costly to explore, and it will be costly to develop. But at the same time, the known resources there - are of a quantity and of a grade that support the development.”

That’s why they acquired the company. “We're just really scratching the surface here in terms of nickel prospectivity.”


Noront Field Tech


The company has restarted the exploration site. They've hired contractors and employees. “We're required north of 80 people. At least a third of those workers are First Nation from a local community. And so, we're restarting our activities up there, focused kind of a mix of exploration for new nickel discoveries, as well as doing some of the geotechnical work that we need to do at Eagle's Nest, which is our flagship nickel project in order to keep moving that along as well.”

Those activities include everything from diamond drilling, surface geophysics, airborne geophysical surveys, and soil sampling.

“If you think about where Noront was for the last several years, especially with COVID, we were unable to do a lot of the field programs we wanted to do because of funding constraints and things like that,” Weston told Mining Life.

He says the company is now able to get out into the field and start testing targets that they've generated over the last several years including surface geophysics, drilling, nickel targets, and also large regional soil sampling surveys that are designed for the precious metal side. With soil sampling surveys, you never know what you're going to find.

“Our focus is primarily nickel, but we certainly have copper-zinc projects on our plate. We've got titanium, and vanadium targets that we are going to be looking at. And then, of course, we've got gold targets, early-stage gold targets that we want to continue to advance.”

The encouraging and underlying news in all of this is that everyone is on the same page when it comes to sustainable and responsible development.  

“This will be a mine of the future. It's the right thing to do. We are operating in an environmentally sensitive area in the wetlands, a lot of water. So, we need to manage that. And the best way to manage water is to not have large open pits. So, Eagle's Nest will be a very small footprint, less than one square kilometer footprint mine underground. There'll be no surface tailings facility.”


Noront pic 3


The tailings will be used as backfill to fill some of the voids underground so that Wyloo can effectively mine the entire ore body. In developing Eagle's Nest, their goal is to develop it as a net-zero emissions mine.  “That will be a challenge, quite frankly,” said Weston. “But I think we're certainly looking at options between wind, solar and whatever else we can, because we believe that the mine of the future needs to have that. Especially when you're operating in an area as pristine as the Ring of Fire that you're going to need to demonstrate that you can do it sustainably.”

“One of the biggest concerns you hear in the mainstream media is how the wetlands are the breathing lungs of the north. And the last thing we want to do is have people think or believe that we are going to be destroying that. It’s a very small footprint mine. In fact, most of the footprint is already disturbed from the two exploration camps up there.”

Weston says the sustainably challenge will be managed and developed in concert with the local communities in terms of providing all sorts of business opportunities, employment opportunities, and training opportunities. Fortescue, Wyloo’s sister company, hasve been very successful at training and employing Indigenous peoples in Western Australia. In fact, they're one of the largest employers in the country. Wyloo’s; and their mandate from Perth to Thunder Bay and Toronto is to make sure that they continue that tradition of hiring heavily from the communities, and training heavily from the communities.

“Wyloo has said that they want to build create a training facilityprogram whereby anybody that graduates from that facility has a guaranteed job that the Ring of Fire when we move into the development stage. So those are lofty goals, but achievable in our view. And we're at a much smaller scale. At the exploration scale, we're attempting to do that with about a third of our workforce being from local indigenous communities.”

With multiple government regulations yet to overcome and attain, the next steps are fairly clear, according to Weston.

“It's all about the roads. If you look at the planned access to the Ring of Fire, there's three road components. One is the Marten Falls community access road. The next would be the northern road link, which would connect Marten Falls to the Ring of Fire. And then there's the third leg which goes from community of Webequie over to the Ring of Fire. The northern road link is about a couple of years behind the other two road pieces, just because of the timing of when those EA started.”

Weston says once that gets established, and as EAs continue to advance they’ll have a much better idea in terms of when they will launch their own feasibility study.

“Noront completed a feasibility study on Eagle's Nest back in 2012. It's now 10 years old, so obviously it needs some updates. But it really doesn't make a lot of sense for us to do those updates and to restart our own environmental assessment until we have a better idea on the timing of the environmental assessments for the roads. We don't want to get ahead of those road studies because we need input from the road studies into our own feasibility study and environmental assessments. How we're going to access the mine, that’s how we're going to build the mine, that's how we're going to operate the mine, so we need to know the timeline.”

The reserves right now are 11 years and then there's another 9 million tonnes of inferred resources. At a million tonnes per year, that's another nine years.

“I think this is an exciting time for the Noront team and virtually, all of the folks that were here for pre-Wyloo - we’re still here. So, it's the same team, and that was one of the messages that was made very clear to us when Wyloo acquired the company as they acquired the asset, but they were equally excited about acquiring the team.”

“And that really helps us in terms of engaging with First Nation communities because we've got existing relationships there. They like to know who it is that they're talking to. It's a very exciting time for the Noront, for the Ring of Fire and for, I think, the community. Obviously, there's a way to go in making sure that we have everybody on board. But we're just starting on that front. And we are on the search for a new CEO to sort of guide the ship that way. But in the meantime, we're ramping up a lot of our other positions here. So, I think you're going to hear and see a lot more about Noront and the Ring of Fire in the coming months.”

Visit Noront Resources, CEO, Stephen Flewelling as he will be a guest speaker during the CEN CAN Expo Ring of Fire conference on September 15th. Register today as seats are limited. www.cencanexpo.ca or call 705-264-2251.

Tags: Northern Ontario / Ring of Fire / Battery Metals / All Articles