By Mary Katherine Keown
It would be difficult to go a day without stainless steel. The Old Faithful of materials is ubiquitous at home, work and play. And that steel would not be stainless without ferrochrome — the end product of chromite mining.
Chromite is mined from iron-magnesium-rich deposits in a handful of countries. South Africa is the world’s largest producer, followed by Kazakhstan, Turkey, Russia, India and Zimbabwe. Smaller deposits have been exploited in Finland, Iran and Brazil. A major deposit north of Sudbury, Ontario may be Canada’s ticket to the chromite group.
Chromite mining in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire inched closer to reality last March, with the announcement that Toronto-based Noront Resources will buy up the lion’s share of established deposits.
Although Ontario’s chromite deposits were discovered in 2006 — the first significant discovery in North America — the Ring of Fire project has stagnated for years, in large part because mining companies could not agree on a transportation corridor. Cleveland-based Cliffs Natural Resources, a major stakeholder, wanted to build a north-south all-weather road from the site to the village of Nakina, while KWG Resources Inc. favoured a railway. There were also problems with environmental assessments and negotiations with First Nations communities in the area had proven challenging. Cliffs suspended activity in the Ring of Fire in 2013.
But in March 2015, Toronto-based Noront Resources Ltd. bought Cliffs’ assets for $20 million. The acquisition means Noront has a 100 percent interest in the Black Thor chromite deposit, a 100 percent interest in the Black Label deposit and a 70 percent interest in the Big Daddy chromite deposit; KWG owns the other 30 percent. The deal also gives Noront 85 percent ownership of the McFauld’s Lake copper-zinc resource.
Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts said on March 23 he would like to begin extracting chromite within five years. He argues an east-west all-season road running from Pickle Lake to the Ring of Fire makes the most sense for Noront.
“It avoids a lot of the river crossings that going down to Nakina would encounter and it also builds off an existing disturbed corridor,” Coutts explains. “We think this is the right choice to access the Ring of Fire and it can bring all-season infrastructure to some of the communities, as well.”
Not everyone is excited by the prospect. Local First Nations’ communities are worried about a toxic byproduct of chromium mining and smelting. Number 24 on the periodic table of elements, the coveted component of chromite ore, chromium, has two primary valences: chromite-3 and the notoriously toxic chromite-6 — “hexavalent chromium.”
Erin Brockovich, the American legal clerk, rose to international prominence for investigating the health hazards of hexavalent chromium, after the Pacific Gas and Electric Company allegedly allowed it to leech into the water supply of Hinkley, California. A class-action lawsuit was settled in 1996 for $333 million. The 2000 film based on Brockovich’s story won Julia Roberts an Academy award.
Elijah Moonias, chief of Marten Falls First Nation, five hundred kilometers northeast of Thunder Bay at the junction of the Ogoki and Albany Rivers, says he has little faith in the environmental assessments that were completed and is concerned the region’s landscapes could be irreparably altered by the project.
“At this point I am neither opposed nor in favour,” Moonias says. “I am concerned with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), which has no track record at all in the tar sands extraction. The fresh water in that region will be a chemical soup in 40 years … With the arrogance of the federal Conservatives and their fast-tracking of this already-deadly exercise, it is unlikely there will be satisfaction. I want to be satisfied that this Ring of Fire will not be another tar sands.”
Joan Kuyek, the founding national co-ordinator of Mining Watch Canada, has written extensively on the dangers and challenges of chromite mining.
The problem occurs during smelting, when hexavalent chromium is produced, she says. “A by-product of all ferrochromium smelters is hexavalent chromium, which will be distributed in dust from the plant, will be stored in tailings impoundments and will seep into our waterways and aquifers,” Kuyek writes.
“Unlike Cr-III, which exists in nature and is relatively harmless, Cr-VI is created by industrial processes like smelting, and is made worse by acidic environments. … (It) is particularly toxic when inhaled and can cause severe damage to the lungs, kidneys, liver and blood cells. It is a known carcinogen.”
There are other issues. Chromite smelters are a major producer of greenhouse gases. “A ferrochromium smelter is an enormous consumer of energy – requiring 3,000-4,000 kWh per tonne of ferrochromium produced,” Kuyek writes in a blog post published on The Media Co-op website. “The modern Merafe smelter in South Africa produces 28.25 carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per tonne of ferrochrome produced.”
There are currently no substitutes for chromite and “the main ingredient added to iron to make stainless steel appears to be chromium,” says Dr. Michael Lesher, a Laurentian University geology professor and research chair in mineral exploration. “The chromium in chromite is entirely Cr-III and therefore inert and – I assume unless inhaled as dust – non-toxic,” Lesher says. “Under oxidizing conditions (natural and man-made), Cr-VI can form. I am a geologist, not an epidemiologist, but I have read that it is toxic in smaller doses than Cr-III because it is a strong oxidant.”
The Blacksmith Institute, a non-profit organization working to solve pollution problems in the global South, reports hexavalent chromium has caused major health problems in the areas surrounding the chromite mines of India’s Sukinda Valley. Chromite over-burden, which remains following ore removal, has contaminated the rivers and waterways of the region. As a result, it has caused devastating disease and illness. Researchers found that 85 percent of deaths in the mining areas and in the nearby industrial villages resulted from disease. Villages within one kilometre of the mine sites were most affected, with approximately 24 per cent of inhabitants suffering from pollution-induced diseases.
A July 2012 report by John Pickrell, which appeared on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website, listed Sukinda Valley as the eighth most polluted place on earth. Some of the illnesses from which miners suffer include gastrointestinal bleeding, tuberculosis, asthma, infertility and birth defects. It must be noted, however, that many of the Sukinda Valley mines operate without any kind of environmental management or oversight, and that water treatment facilities in the region are very limited.
Ontario’s Black Thor deposit “is only one of several similar deposits in the Ring of Fire,” Andrew Morrison, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, explains. “There are other smaller deposits of chromite in North America, but they lack the size, grade and quality to make a mining operation profitable.” Morrison says the chromite deposits in northwestern Ontario could potentially “position Ontario alongside South Africa, Kazakhstan and India, who, together, currently account for more than 70 percent of global production of chromite ore.”
Dick DeStefano, executive director of the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association, estimates there is enough chromite in the Ring of Fire to meet market needs for the next 200 years. “It’s a major find,” he says. “All those countries with major deposits, Canada is the most politically stable. The Americans want access to a politically-stable source (of chromite),” he says. “Anyone who makes steel is going to want chromite.”
There is good reason to court the Americans. The United States is a major chromite consumer, purchasing about 15 percent of the commodity annually.
Chromite is not particularly expensive. It currently sells for about 2.27 USD/kg, which means it is only worthwhile where deposits are vast. The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario estimates the Ring of Fire could be worth $60 billion USD over its lifespan; however, Stan Sudol, a communications consultant and mining industry blogger is more optimistic – in 2012 he indicated the Ring of Fire deposits could exceed $1 trillion.
“Chromium has two roles in making stainless steel from iron: to make it harder and to make it resistant to oxidation (rusting),” says geologist Michael Lesher. “The chromite in the McFauld’s Lake area (where the Ring of Fire is centered) is reportedly particularly rich in chromium and the deposit is much thicker and more extensive than all other deposits in North America, as well as most other deposits in the world.”
Lesher says Canadians need to weigh the pros and cons of the chromite project before deciding if it makes sense. “I am not a philosopher, but life is full of trade-offs: if we do not need the mining royalties for First Nations communities, employment opportunities for First Nations and other communities, and all of the other downstream employment opportunities across Ontario and Canada, we do not need to mine these deposits,” he says. “On the other hand, if we want to generate income to maintain our lifestyles, we should mine them. The ‘footprint’ of an open-pit mine is much larger than an underground mine, but the percentage of land occupied by mining is extremely small.”
An internal memo between staff at Environment Canada, dated Sept. 12, 2011, lists several uncertainties regarding the environmental viability of the Ring of Fire project. In the letter, Rob Dobos, manager of the environmental assessment section, expresses concern about a number of the project’s components.
“It is expected that hexavalent and trivalent chromium (Cr-III) will likely be released into the environment, with trivalent chromium in the ore and waste rock potentially oxidizing into hexavalent chromium. … It may have an immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity, and constitutes or may constitute a danger to human life or health.”
Dobos also questions the viability of an all-season road, which would cut through large tracts of the Boreal forest and the peatlands of the Hudson Bay lowlands.
“We all agree it is important to get the environmental assessment of this massive project right,” says David Peerla, a spokesperson for Neskatanga First Nation, on the shores of Attawapiskat Lake. “Without a proper assessment, no one knows what the impacts of the project are predicted to be. How can we make a decision on the project before we have had a proper environmental assessment?”
In an affidavit put forth by Matawa First Nations (an umbrella group representing several communities in the Far North) under the Federal Courts Act, Peter Moonias, chief of Neskatanga, says food security is at stake. He signed the affidavit on June 7, 2012.
“Our people travel all along the Attawapiskat River. We use the river to hunt, fish (and) trap, and as a means of transportation,” the affidavit states. “The lake and river provide us with summer to winter fishing … Our territory sustains us.”
The affidavit states there are ceremonial sites along the Attawapiskat River system, as well as burial grounds throughout the territory.
Chief Elijah Moonias believes that while economic development is important, it cannot supersede the lands, lifestyles and traditions of his community. “Money, employment and infrastructure are not the final check in any kind of development. It is the responsibility and accountability in achieving money, employment and the infrastructure that is at issue,” he says. “In the 1940s the Ogoki River was diverted to Nipigon and to Lake Superior for ‘the greater good of the many,’ and now 70 years later the river is shrinking, islands have appeared where there were none before and some fish have disappeared.”
Mining Watch coordinator Joan Kuyek argues sustainable mining is an oxymoron and contends the best alternative to new chromite mining projects is to reduce demand. She believes it inevitable that Cr-VI will contaminate the waterways near a mine site, and admits she has no idea how much dust will find its way into rivers and groundwater sources.
“There’s never been a smelter or a tailings pond or a slag heap that did not leak,” Kuyek says.