Making Informed Decisions for the Far North and the Ring of Fire

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Ontario’s Far North region is one of the world’s largest intact ecosystems and makes up 42 per cent of the province’s area. The Far North is an area of international ecological significance and a stronghold for biodiversity, including such at-risk mammals as caribou, wolverine and polar bear. Its peatlands are important carbon stores, and its forests comprise part of the largest block of boreal forest still free from large-scale human disturbance anywhere in the world. The Far North holds the traditional territories of 38 First Nations communities.

In the heart of the Far North is an area now referred to as the “Ring of Fire” – a remote, crescent-shaped region under intense mining exploration interest (see Figure 3.1.1). Significant deposits of chromite and nickel, as well as copper, zinc, gold and other minerals, have been discovered in the Ring of Fire over the past decade. As of April 2013, 21 companies had mining claims in the region, covering an area of 2,250 square kilometres (km2), and there is little doubt that the significant discoveries in the area will be developed into working mines in the coming years. The magnitude of the Ring of Fire’s development potential and economic opportunity – which has led some to dub the area “Ontario’s oil sands” – make it the most immediate and obvious planning issue in the Far North.

The Far North Act, 2010 was designed to implement a land use planning system across Ontario’s Far North and sets out a joint planning process between First Nations and the Ontario government. The Act requires that, prior to the opening of a mine in a Far North region, a community-based land use plan for that region must be jointly developed and approved by the appropriate First Nation(s) and the Ontario government, unless Cabinet overrides this requirement by issuing an exempting order. The Act also allows for the establishment of a Joint Body – made up of equal numbers of First Nation members and Ontario government officials – to advise the Minister of Natural Resources on matters related to the development, implementation and co-ordination of land use planning in the Far North. As of June 2013, this Joint Body had not been established. For more on the Far North Act, 2010, see Part 2.2 of the ECO’s 2010/2011 Annual Report.

Proposals for major infrastructure in and to the region – such as the placement of transportation corridors and energy transmission lines – are now being considered in advance of mine development and prior to the completion of the land use plans described by the Far North Act, 2010. Currently, many First Nation communities in the Far North are dependent on winter roads or are only accessible by aircraft.

These infrastructure decisions are of monumental importance. Road or rail access will create a new world of possibilities for the Far North, opening a truly new frontier for exploration, development and activities like hunting and fishing. Increased accessibility also will change the way Ontarians think about the Far North – it won’t seem so far anymore. But what will this development mean for the largely pristine, intact ecosystem of the Far North?

Environmental Concerns about Development in the Ring of Fire

New development in the Ring of Fire raises a host of potential environmental concerns (see Table 3.1.1). The cumulative environmental effects from mine development across the Ring of Fire are also a significant concern, given the region’s ecological significance.

Table 3.1.1. Some Potential Environmental Effects of Mining and Mining-Related Infrastructure in the Ring of Fire.

Development Potential Environmental Effects that should be Evaluated
Mine construction and operation
  • Loss and fragmentation of terrestrial and aquatic habitat, including that of species at risk like caribou, wolverine and lake sturgeon;
  • Groundwater flow impacts and subsequent impacts to wetlands, peat and water movement;
  • Pumping of mine water affecting surface water quality;
  • Fuel or chemical spills at the site;
  • Mobilization of naturally occurring metals, such as arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium; and
  • Metal/contaminant seepage to soils and groundwater from aggregate piles and settling ponds during mine construction and operation.
Transportation corridors (all-season roads or railways)
  • Fragmentation of both terrestrial and aquatic habitat (e.g., impacts on migration and daily movements);
  • Ongoing disturbance to wildlife due to noise, traffic and dust;
  • Impacts on stream morphology and flow;
  • Increased sedimentation of water bodies from road runoff;
  • Increased access and traffic to wilderness areas, increasing fishing and hunting pressure;
  • Fragmentation and disturbance of major rivers, wetland areas and protected areas; and
  • Increased greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels.
Smelters or other processing facilities
  • Soil, sediment, water and air contamination with chromium(VI) (a toxic form of the element chromium);
  • Emission of air pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon oxides, sulphur oxides and particulate dusts that contain heavy metals; and
  • Water pollution from waste rock and tailings management.
Energy use and transmission
  • Aquatic habitat fragmentation or loss due to hydro-electric dam construction and operation; and
  • Fragmentation of both terrestrial and aquatic habitat due to transmission lines.

In addition to the potential impacts from the construction and operation of the mines, the development of associated infrastructure – mainly transportation corridors and transmission lines – may also have significant environmental impacts in the Far North. Irrespective of its eventual placement, the transportation corridor to the Ring of Fire (see box on proposal in the Ring of Fire) will require an approximately 300-km-long tract of land through relatively undeveloped areas of the boreal forest and Hudson Bay lowlands (see Figure 3.1.2).

Before moving ahead with approvals for the construction of multiple mines and supporting infrastructure in the Ring of Fire, the government should understand the potential environmental effects on local ecological systems, as well as across the Far North as a whole. Decisions on how to proceed should rest upon a solid base of environmental knowledge – collected through monitoring and evaluated through a robust environmental assessment process.

In 2010, the Far North Science Advisory Panel, an independent group of scientists appointed by the provincial government, completed a report that provided advice on how to proceed with land use planning in Far North ecosystems, including the Ring of Fire. The Panel recommended that the Ontario government establish long-term, securely-funded monitoring programs co-ordinated between ministries, governments and researchers, and that these monitoring programs should formally report to the Legislature on the “State of the Far North” every five years. The panel also recommended that the government immediately designate the Ring of Fire as a priority management area, with an interim regional planning process. The report included a list of inventory and monitoring needs that could form the basis of a monitoring program to inform land use planning decisions across the Far North. The government has not responded to or acted upon either of these recommendations.

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