The "Ring of Fire" is an area of northern Ontario that has seen a rapid growth in mineral exploration and potential developments in recent years. Two projects, Cliffs' chromite project and Noront's copper-nickel project, have filed descriptions with federal authorities - the first step in initiating an environmental assessment. The proponents of the projects have also volunteered to have their projects designated under the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act (mining projects are not required to undergo an EA in Ontario).
Both projects are large and complex with massive infrastructure development, power supply, and processing facilities that are part of the proposed developments. The projects each propose a different permanent road corridor and a there is a third proposal for a railway.
The concerns about the proposed projects are many and include:
- The way that these first developments will open up the region to additional developments and the cumulative effects of these projects.
- Meeting infrastructure needs of remote First Nations communities;
- Providing meaningful economic development opportunities for First Nations; and northern communities;
- Impacts on Aboriginal rights and sacred sites such as burial grounds;
- Water management in an area with as much or more water as dry land;
- Impacts on fish habitats and populations;
- Impacts on woodland caribou;
- Impacts on intact boreal forest ecosystems;
- The ability of existing environmental laws to address chromite mining and processing, which have never been done before in Canada.
Communities in the area of the projects belong to the Matawa First Nations while those that may be affected downstream are part of the Mushkegowuk Council; together these two councils represent 13 communities. Many northern municipalities are also taking an interest in the projects and looking for economic development opportunities through providing services to the projects, should they proceed. The siting of the proposed chromite processing plant will require the participation of additional First Nations and municipalities.
Given the scale and complexities of the proposed developments, First Nations and a number of non-governmental organizations have been recommending the projects be evaluated through a joint review panel process. This approach would have several advantages over the default comprehensive study process (see the CEAA web site for definitions of the types of federal EA). A joint review panel would:
- Harmonize provincial and federal processes
- Ensure greater degree of Aboriginal and public consultation.
- Provide a forum for oral testimony in addition to written submissions.
- Provide an opportunity to cross-examine expert witnesses to explore areas of concern and uncertainty.
- Provide greater participant funding to enable more effective participation by First Nations, municipalities and public interest groups.
Mushkegowuk and Matawa have also insisted that the details of a review process be negotiated and agreed upon with them not on their behalf. (You can find their letters to the Canadian and Ontario Ministers of the Environment below)
One option for a review panel to address the complex issues and mulitple proposals for the Ring of Fire is to have the panel conduct a regional strategic environmental assessment (RSEA). Rather than looking at individual projects a RSEA integrates potential development scenarios with regional land use planning across a broad area that may be affected by multiple projects.
RSEA has been recommended for application in situations similar to the RIng of Fire by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment and recently by the Commissioner on the Environment and Sustainable Development, Scott Vaughan, after examining the issues surrounding environmental assessments in the Tar Sands. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has also commissioned a number of reports on the subject.
Ecojustice and the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada recently completed a brief on RSEA and the Ring of Fire that outlines the opportunities such a process would provide.
Unfortunately, neither the Ontario government, nor the federal government are taking a leadership role in addressing the issue of environmental assessment for the Ring of Fire Projects. First Nations and public interest groups have been advocating for a strong and consultative process but there has been little concrete response to their input. Letters from the two First Nations councils as well as MiningWatch, Wildlands League, and the Wildlife Conservation Society are available below.