Hitting the chromite jackpot may not benefit Ontarians

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The Ring of Fire is causing some controversy. No, I'm not talking about the song Johnny Cash recorded in 1963, but rather more Canadian -- a discovery of natural resources, larger than Prince Edward Island, in northern Ontario that could completely revitalize the northern Ontario economy.

According to a press release by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference Maintenance of Way Employees Division (TCRC-MWED), U.S. multinational Cliffs Natural Resources says it will seek an exemption to the Ontario Mining Act so that they can bypass the regulation that states raw materials mined in Canada must be refined in Canada. This will allow them to ship raw chromite (used to make stainless steel, nickel, copper and gold) overseas to China where wages are lower and working conditions are less safe than Canadian standards.

The message from Teamsters: the McGuinty government needs to tell (foreign interests) that if you "mine it here, then refine it here or keep it in the ground."

According to Bill Brehl, president of TCRCMWED:

"There are just under 200 Teamsters Canada Rail Conference-MWED members on the ONR and 2/3 of all rail labour in Canada are Teamsters. If the refining is done elsewhere in Ontario, Teamsters members will be operating the trains that haul the ore to the refineries. The more ore that is refined here, the more trains that will run and the more train crews that will be needed. The railways are almost exclusively unionized labour, so no matter where the ore goes, it will be good for rail labour."

But that's not where it ends. Many more job opportunities in the north stand to be exported if Cliffs Natural Resources gets its exemption to the Ontario Mining Act and ships chromium refining overseas.

"Teamsters will be moving chromium, but if raw [chromium] is allowed to be shipped overseas, hundreds if not thousands of other Canadian jobs will be lost," Brehl said.

"If the refining stays in the Ontario north, Canadian labour will benefit... whether they are Teamsters or not. And that is the main issue here. Canadian jobs staying in Canada."

He said there is existing infrastructure for the refining in Timmims, with skilled workers available to do the job. And that's not the only possible site. There are many facilities available for refining chromium that would provide jobs in northern Ontario, Brehl added. Jobs that have disappeared.

There are a number of sites in Ontario that Cliffs said would work. There is the Xstrata refinery at Kidd (around 30 km from Timmins), which shutdown almost two years ago after the work was moved to Quebec. There is access to water, sewers and power, as well as rail and road infrastructure already in place. The site was up to environmental protection standards when previously operating, so it should not take much, if anything, to get it there again. There is also a workforce, housing, satellite industries and other amenities and resources still in the area. When the Kidd mine closed down an estimated 300 jobs were directly lost and likely thousands of further jobs associated with Kidd affected.

Brehl thinks the Ontario government will not be the biggest problem here.

"Cliffs Natural Resources is trying to skirt our labour regulations and pay starvation wages to increase their profits," he said.

With these issues in mind, I contacted the office of Ontario's minister of northern mines and development, Rick Bartolucci. I didn't get to talk to the minister, but a very nice man from their communications department had this to say:

"The project has not yet progressed to [the application for exemption stage] as development in the Ring of Fire is still in its early days."

Sounds reassuring, doesn't it. He went on:

"We continue to work with Cliffs and other companies to ensure the full range of opportunities and incentives are assessed against the cost of doing business in Ontario and that they fully consider the range of rate reduction programs currently in place."

There's an environmental assessment that Cliffs has begun -- working with all levels of government -- but some stakeholders feel they've been excluded, and that a public hearing on such a massive project is necessary.

According to Ramsey Hart, spokesperson for Mining Watch, public hearings are not being held for Cliffs Natural Resources proposed chromite mine north of Thunder Bay.

• "[It's] largely a paper process of submitting written comments, reviewing documents, and providing written feedback back and forth," he said.

According to Brehl: "If the Occupy Movement has taught us anything, it is that sometimes we have to do what is best for people, not what is best for Wall Street financiers and corporations."

Here's an excerpt from the official description of the project from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency website:

• The proposed project consists of constructing, operating and eventually decommissioning an open pit/underground chromite-ore mine (30-year mine life at predicted extraction rate of 6,000 to 12,000 tonnes/day) and ore processing facility. The proposal includes an integrated transportation system consisting of a new north-south all-season road corridor and a new ferrochrome production facility, which would be located at a different location than the mine site.

• The project mine site is located approximately 540 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont. and 240km west of James Bay in an area known as the Ring of Fire.

This mine is just one of several planned in the Ring of Fire.

The lack of public consultation is disturbing to many.

"[It's] largely a paper process of submitting written comments, reviewing documents and providing written feedback back and forth," said Ramsey Hart, Mining Watch's program coordinator.

Attempts to contact Hill & Knowlton (yes, THAT Hill & Knowlton) have been met with zero response. H&K are the lobbying consultants for Cliffs, and as yet have not provided a statement on behalf of Cliffs Natural Resources for this story.

What we do know is that there are more questions than answers to this complex issue. Jobs are important, and the northern economy is important, but it would appear that the Ontario government is hiding behind bureaucratic processes that advance little but the interests of a U.S. mining company.

There are also outstanding environmental issues and concerns and those seem to be linked to the lack of public consultation. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has said the project requires federal permits for its potential impact on fish and navigable waterways, and that this has automatically triggered a federal environmental assessment, but many remain sceptical about the transparency of the assessment.

Without a public hearing that many local communities -- including First Nations -- might attend to express their opinions, it seems fairly clear that it's business as usual. That may be good for some, but not so much for Ontarians looking for work in the north.

Meg Borthwick is one of the moderators of babble, rabble.ca's online forum.

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