Will Ontario get it right in northern Ring of Fire?
TheStar.com – opinion/editorialopinion
September 27, 2012. Janet Sumner and Anna Baggio
As with most mining finds, the rich mineral deposits and metals discovered within Ontario’s far northern “Ring of Fire” have generated a lot of hype and optimism. It’s been called one of the “most promising mineral development opportunities in Ontario in almost a century”. In a recent letter to the federal government, Premier Dalton McGuinty was quoted as writing that this area has the potential to “rival Alberta’s oilsands”.
Well it might. We just don’t know because so far we have very few facts to go on. Much work remains to be done. While Ontario might dream of the dollars developing the Ring of Fire will bring, what about the costs we will all bear?
Scientists have long warned that poorly-placed infrastructure in the Far North will cause irreversible harm to aquatic systems and wildlife. In the meantime, the first major Ring of Fire mining proposal is barrelling ahead. A U.S. owned company called Cliffs Natural Resources has received the go-ahead from Ontario to route a new 350 km all-weather road along a north-south alignment so that it can extract and process chromite ore and transport the concentrate to a smelter in Capreol, Ontario or to Asia. The end result will be ferrochrome (used in making stainless steel). One of the by-products is hexavalent chromium, which first came to fame in the film “Erin Brockovich”.
The decision by the government to support and invest in this road for Cliffs, made behind closed doors and before the completion of a proper environmental assessment, raises extremely troubling questions for all Ontario taxpayers. What will it cost citizens to subsidize Cliffs Natural Resources’ plans to exploit the Ring of Fire? What are we going to get in return for investing public funds in this road? What is our reward for giving Cliffs a break on electricity rates for its smelter?
And those are just questions about money. Where is the comprehensive regional land use plan for this highly coveted area? Without a plan that incorporates conservation science and traditional knowledge, how can we ensure protection of its fresh, free-flowing rivers and wildlife such as Boreal woodland caribou and fish?
So far, we have few answers to any of these questions.
Local First Nations near the Ring of Fire are rightly worried about keeping their waters and lands clean and healthy. We’re concerned too about threatened species, peatlands, waters and protecting the public interest. Ontario’s carbon-rich boreal peatlands help cool the planet. The manner in which we plan for these peatlands before permitting development in the Ring of Fire will say a lot about us as a society and whether or not we value their climate-regulating functions.
Whether First Nations participate or not in the development of this area will also say a lot about our collective commitment to working with them. We have had plenty of examples of how not to extract non-renewable resources from other parts of Canada and the world. It’s time to apply those lessons to the Ring of Fire.
So far Ontario has given the public minimal information about the plans for the Cliffs development or the rest of the Ring of Fire area. It took the Wawatay News to discover that the proposed publicly funded road is intended solely for industrial users.
At the end of the day, many people would like these mine projects to go ahead if they will generate jobs and wealth for our province. But the longer we wait to ‘get it right’ by creating a comprehensive plan before the bulldozers move in, the greater the chances for conflict and delays.
We’re at a crossroads. Ontario can either continue to let individual companies launch projects that will shape the future of the region — with the help of our tax dollars — or it can bring all interested parties together to build a long term plan that takes everyone’s needs and concerns into account, based on the best available science. We hope they pick the latter. It’s not too late. The first thing the government needs to do is shed some light on whatever plans exist now. The next thing it needs to do is to begin long-term planning for the Ring of Fire.
Janet Sumner is executive director and Anna Baggio is director, conservation planning, for CPAWS Wildlands League.
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