Those traditional hunting grounds, the James Bay Lowlands, form part of the Hudson Bay Lowlands, the largest contiguous temperate wetland complex in the world. Beyond their natural beauty, they perform vital ecosystem services that benefit even those who will never visit — particularly in water retention and carbon sequestration.
Bog moss can hold up to 30 times its own weight in water, with any excess flowing into the fens. There, peat thickness averages 2½ metres and freshwater runoff is channelled through the high water table directly into the streams and into the brackish water of James Bay.
“At one point I calculated there was as much water in the Hudson Bay Lowlands as in the Great Lakes, it’s just spread out on the land. Effectively they are shallow water bodies,” says ecologist John Riley, who first arrived in the James Bay Lowlands in 1972 to conduct research for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and has since become a leading expert.
Worldwide, peatlands store three times as much carbon as boreal and tropical forests combined, and the high-density carbon of the Hudson Bay Lowland provides one-tenth of the cooling effects of the world’s peatlands. The James Bay Lowlands alone sequester more than 12 megatons of carbon dioxide each year. (For comparison, Ontario’s annual emissions are around 170 megatons.)
“Peatlands are the world’s refrigerators, and the Hudson Bay Lowlands is the biggest one,” says Riley. “In Europe, I show the ecologists photos of the Lowlands and they can’t believe the scale of it. Because of course they destroyed all of their peatlands long ago.”
Riley worries that the unique location of the Ring of Fire, at the core of a hitherto undisturbed refuge for all of its original wildlife species, is being largely ignored in the rush of excitement about riches. He believes the project delays provide the perfect opportunity to set aside some protected areas and conservation reserves.
“In the case of the Ring of Fire, almost all discussion to date has focused on development issues, with almost no discussion of environmental protection,” says Riley. “Canadians must stop being the imperialists of their landscapes — as it has been so often in the history of resource development — and become the land’s stewards first and foremost.”
It was in this environment that De Beers constructed Ontario’s first diamond mine, just south of the Attawapiskat River. The open-pit Victor Diamond Mine, which went into production in 2008, can be seen on Google Earth (52.8239, -83.8936) with its airstrip on the north end and its tailings pit to the west. It was from there that geologists, following the diamond-rich kimberlite west of Victor, found new riches wherever they drilled. First it was nickel deposits — the biggest high-grade nickel discovery in more than 20 years. And then in 2008 they stumbled upon the largest chromite deposit in North America. (Chromite is used in stainless steel production and has only three current sources in the world.)
De Beers has been criticized for building a diamond mine in the wetlands in the same way they might build one on the tundra, without adequate berms and other protection for the environment downstream. So when Noront Resources took on the task of designing their nickel mine, west of Victor, they wanted to learn from De Beers’ experience and do things differently.
The initial concept for all the planned mines in the area began with an open pit design, in which the “overburden” of plants and animals would be scraped away to expose the Precambrian rock beneath. Noront held open houses in the Matawa communities to explain their plans and hear concerns.
“Almost invariably, they were concerned about water, waste rock piles and tailings. So we went back to our planning phase and redesigned the mine,” says Noront’s CEO Alan Coutts.
The resulting design is almost entirely underground with very few surface structures at all, leaving the muskeg undisturbed. In addition, Noront contrived to put all its tailings back in the ground where they came from. Tailings are the primary legacy of a mine, and in the past few decades, mines have started to mix them with cement and funnel them into spent shafts as backfill. But the process of grinding up the leftover rock into powder swells it in volume, so only about two-thirds of those leftovers can be jammed in before they begin to overflow.
“Then we realized that we would need a rock quarry anyway for building the all-season road, so why not put that quarry underground, making that extra space for the rest of the tailings,” says Coutts. After two or three years, the plan is to use the Eagle’s Nest proceeds to tunnel over to a nearby site that holds enough chrome ore to supply 40 per cent of North American demand. As is often the case with large-scale projects, however, initial timing estimates proved optimistic, and there have already been significant delays.
First and foremost, the all-weather road is critical to the development of the region. Ice roads have been failing recently, the window in which to transport goods by truck contracting to just two or three weeks, and diesel fuel for the community generators often must be flown in at great expense. The new all-season road would trace the decades-old winter route that stretches 280 kilometres from Webequie to Pickle Lake — but it is also expected to see intense traffic, carrying up to 100 seventy-tonne truck loads per day when the mines are in production.
“So much depends on the ability to get roads into the region,” says Coutts. “Everyone wants this infrastructure in this case, but there are still the questions of where does it go and whose traditional lands will it pass through?”