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Noront considers building small-scale ferrochrome pilot plant in Sudbury

Also, here's about as detailed an accounting of what Noront has told us about the Sault plant as we can muster
07-26-19 Stephen Flewelling
Stephen Flewelling, chief development officer at Noront Resources Ltd., was one of several company executives participating in Noront's first Sault ferrochrome open house on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019 at Delta Hotels Sault Ste. Marie Waterfront. David Helwig/SooToday

Fifteen months after Sudbury was rejected as the future home of a billion-dollar Noront Resources Ltd. smelter, it appears the Nickel City may yet win a skinny-downed slice of ferrochrome pie.

Before building its controversial ferrochrome processing plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Noront wants to test its technology with a small-scale demonstration plant.

Greater Sudbury is under consideration as the prototype's location.

This previously undisclosed part of Noront's plans was one of many new details that surfaced during six hours of formal and informal presentations by executives of the junior mining company late last month in the Sault.

The tsunami of new information, released in a widely-criticized format, went largely unreported in media reports.

"Typically what you'll do is you'll take ore samples and you will set up a plant that replicates the major plant on a small scale," Stephen Flewelling, the company's chief development officer, told city councillors.

"You will run that plant to understand how it works with actual material and what the waste products of it are," Flewelling said.

Falconbridge, Ont. - birthplace of Canadian ferrochrome

Back in 2015, Noront's acquisition of Cliffs Natural Resources' Ring of Fire chromite assets for a bargain-basement $US20 million came with a big technology bonus.

Cliffs had already spent $100 million building a pilot plant in Falconbridge, Ont. that produced the first-ever Canadian ferrochrome in 2011.

A news release was issued about this accomplishment but seems to have been entirely missed by media outlets.

Initial test conditions in the Falconbridge demonstration facility were considered less than ideal, but small-scale ferrochrome smelting in the 350 kilowatt DC electric arc pilot furnace continued as recently as last year.

Having acquired this technological treasure-trove for a fraction of its worth gives Noront a head start.

"When we acquired the assets of Cliff's Natural Resources, we got the benefit of their engineering and [research and development] and their pilot work," Flewelling said during his City Council presentation on Oct. 22.

"We're building up on that piece of work. That's what got the design where it is today," Flewelling said.

"Cliff's did that once already and we would intend to do it again to make sure, because there's been some nuances or changes. There's different ore sources and work we would have to re-do."

"It isn't that there's a lot of brand-new stuff. What there is a collection of appropriate things that come together," Flewelling said.

Hatch Engineering, which is helping with project management and engineering as an equity partner in Noront's Ring of Fire initiative, will now tie up Cliffs' loose ends and shape them into a more advanced smelter design.

Flewelling describes Hatch as the "preeminent Canadian engineering firm and the preeminent hot-metal company in the world."

"Hatch's job is to put together the right pieces and engineer them all on how to work together," he says.

Sault roots

Flewelling has deep roots in both Sault Ste. Marie and the Canadian mining sector.

His late mother was born and raised in the Sault. Her sisters all grew up here.

His grandmother's brother was John Barker, driving force behind the founding of the Group Health Centre.

Flewelling's four decades in the mining industry involved plenty of time at Falconbridge in Sudbury, where he was head of product development worldwide.

He also worked with Xstrata PLC, which took over Falconbridge in 2006 and built the Cliffs demonstration smelter. 

Speaking at a Noront open house on Oct. 23, Flewelling confirmed that Sudbury is under consideration to host both the company's lab work and the new prototype ferrochrome production facility that will follow.

"They have pretty much all the facilities we need, there, in terms of a lab,” he told SooToday's Carol Martin.

Flewelling said there's no other facility of this kind in the world so there is nothing we can look at to see how it’s going to work.

The two things that make the proposed Noront smelter unique are the low-oxygen environment in the arc furnace, and the carbon reclamation system that will be used in the relatively self-contained process.

Neither low-oxygen arc furnaces nor carbon dioxide recycling are new technologies, but this would be the first time they are combined in a chromium processing facility, he told us.

Flewelling describes proposed Sault facility

The following, entirely in his own words, is Flewelling's description of the proposed Sault ferrochrome smelter:

"It's a Hatch design, designed here in Ontario. It's designed to minimize what is probably the most serious of the environmental concerns, the production of hexavalent chrome, which is an absolutely known carcinogen. And therefore if you're going to do this, you've got to do it in a very responsible manner that minimizes the production of hexavalent chrome, which we believe we are in a position to do and we have an approach to do so. You want to make sure we maximize dust capture with state-of-the-art dust management systems."

"The major technology at the centre of this is two 65-megawatt DC electric arc furnaces. And the reason that's selected is they're the best technology to do the multitude of things we have, which starts with recovering the most chrome you can from the ore and getting it into ferrochrome. Rather than less in the ore and more in the waste products."

"In addition, this furnace technology works in a reduction environment. What that means is it works in an oxygen-deficient environment. And hexavalent chrome is formed in the presence of heat and oxygen. So by starving the furnace for oxygen, we limit the amount that's produced."

"We capture the dust from the furnace and the DC electric arc furnace technology allows us to recycle all the furnace dust versus putting them in the disposal pond  back into the furnaces. So you have a recycle system. In addition, we recycle the incomplete combustion carbon monoxide, and that's a heat source for warming up the material, which makes the overall process more energy-efficient."

"We have a very, very complicated but very state-of-the-art application. There's no other plants like this. This would be the first application of this suite of technologies in the world."

"What that allows us also to do is to make the slag byproduct inert from chrome materials. We believe it'll be saleable just like the slag is today from Algoma."

"What this plant will ultimately do is that all the dust will be recycled. So it's a closed system. Is there some small amount of effluent from that? Yes, there is. Do we believe that it's going to be an inert effluent? Yes we do. We will work with you to demonstrate that it is."

"All of the process water in this design is recycled. So there is no discard of any processed water with this plant."

'Five years ago... they couldn't get out of bed before noon'

Flewelling raised some eyebrows in Sault Ste. Marie's council chambers last month when he talked about Noront's hiring of First Nations workers.

"Over the past four years, we've averaged 65 per cent of our workforce being from our local indigenous communities," he said.

He showed a photograph of workers from Webequie and Marten Falls laboriously hauling gear through deep snow in the Ring of Fire, hundreds of miles from the nearest transportation infrastructure, road or rail.

Then he showed an image of two former labourers from Marten Falls First Nation who had advanced themselves to become geological technicians and were pictured working as hosts at a company booth at a mining exploration event.

"Five years ago," Flewelling told City Council, "they were, you know, I asked the chief, and these weren't my words, it was the chief of Marten Falls who said they couldn't get out of bed before noon. And he was speaking about both these guys individually."

Would a Sault smelter save greenhouse gases?

Noront wants to produce 280,000 tons of ferrochrome annually.

That's just a drop in the bucket of the 13 million tons produced each year globally.

Currently, there are no suppliers of chrome or ferrochrome in North America.

Ferrochrome used in North America currently comes from South Africa or Kazakhstan.

Noront says its proposed 280,000 tons will be made by someone else if it doesn't make it.

The company argues that ferrochrome produced using its process will have far less impact on the environment than ferrochrome made by, say, China or South Africa.

"I think from a world greenhouse gas point of view, there's an opportunity to do it more responsibly and lead the way," Flewelling says.

"We intend to be a first-class producer that meets the requirements and the standards, not only our government standards which are very significant but also our community standards."

Environmental assessments

Many of the questions asked by Saultites during Noront's recent visit were about the environmental assessment (EA) process.

Flewelling says the needed assessments are estimated to take about five years and will cost in excess of $50 million.

"We intend to be a first-class producer that meets the requirements and the standards, not only our government standards which are very significant but also our community standards."

Here's what Noront is promising regarding its planned environmental assessments:

  • description of the proposed project
  • description of the existing environmental conditions
  • consideration of project alternatives, including their advantages and disadvantages
  • identification of potential environmental impacts
  • development of mitigation measures to avoid or reduce environmental impacts
  • recommendations for follow-up monitoring
  • consultation with Indigenous communities, public, city and agencies, during the study
  • development of an environmental assessment report that documents the above
  • review of the environmental assessment report by government agencies and their approval or refusal decision

Topics to be studied include:

  • meteorology and air quality
  • noise, vibration and light
  • geology, hydrology and geochemistry
  • terrestrial vegetation, wildlife and soil
  • aquatic environment, water and sediment quality
  • human impacts

Saultites talk about Noront's first open house

Many of the Saultites that SooToday interviewed during the Oct. 23 open house at the waterfront Delta disliked the format.

A half-dozen Noront employees stood beside posters around the crowded room, in a format offering a paucity of formal presentations but enough informal chatter to fill a Terex haul truck.

The format "discourages dialogue and conversation between people," said Jessica Bolduc.

"The space itself is really overwhelming. There's a lot of information. It's not clear who you can actually speak to or talk to that is an expert or can adequately address the concerns that you might have," Bolduc said.

"The importance about consultation or information processes is that we are able to move forward as a community with consent on these issues. These kinds of things actually prevent us in a lot of ways from consenting to a kind of development like this in our community. There's not a lot of ways to engage in constructive conversation about what they're proposing here. The information is positioned in a way that's biased toward the company. What concerns me is that there isn't neutrality around these processes," she said.

The McGuffins

"That sort of setting is not very conducive to getting good answers," said Joanie McGuffin. "These kinds of settings where you have the little pockets and everybody's having these little clusters and talking all over the place . . . The company, they set up their billboard materials and you go around, but a lot of us just don't have all that technical background and we also have concerns about the future of this city, a different future that needs to be considered."

"This is designed to confuse," said Gary McGuffin. "It's designed to divide. This should be like a town hall meeting."

The open house should have been booked in a much larger venue, with presentations recorded by the news media he said. "You have to be held accountable for what you say or don't say."

"It solidified my opinion that this is a company that, rightly so, wants to make money," said Skip Morrison, Sault New Democratic Party candidate in the 2015 federal election.

"They have demonstrated that they're not aware of some of the obvious environmental aspects of where this site is located," said Morrison, an employee of Algoma Steel, where Noront wants to build its smelter on a slag area west of Algoma's existing operations.

Morrison described the proposed Sault site as a "precarious location" with a high water table right beside the proposed plant location. From a risk-management perspective, a Timmins site would be preferrable to the Sault, he said.

"There will be deaths. There will be migration of people out of here, and businesses, and it will make it immensely difficult to attract new businesses other than heavy, dirty industry. The net result is going to be negative... both for the environment, for people's health, and for the economy."

McCleary gets tough

Like her fellow candidates, Sara McCleary took an ambivalent position when she ran for the Sault NDP in last month's federal election.

But since the election, she's been taking to social media to offer a different perspective.

"Now that I'm no longer a political candidate and don't have the same responsibilities as local reps/politicians to explore the job opportunities the smelter offers, I'm looking forward to being able to act as an ordinary resident and fighting the smelter with you all!" McCleary posted on Facebook on the day of the open house.

"Now that I'm back to being an everyday citizen, I don't have that responsibility to explore job opps and can move forward based on my personal desires, which is to keep the smelter out of the Sault. Jobs don't mean anything if we're all too sick to work," she wrote.

Green Party candidate Geo McLean attended the open house and told us he still doesn't have enough information to reach a decision, but he's doubtful that Noront will be able to meet local demands for a safe facility.

Start of a long journey

Stephen Flewelling, however, is a veteran of controversial mining projects and he's just getting warmed up on this one.

"We're at the start of a long journey to confirm that the things that we have to do can be done, and we can do them in a responsible way and therefore build the plant," Flewelling said.

"There's been no commitment to actually build something. We are working with Sault Ste. Marie closely, as we have been, to define what we want to do, engage the community to make sure that it's an acceptable thing for the community, and go through the extensive environmental assessment process that will be required."

"We don't want to be in any community where we're not welcome. We don't want to be in a community where we intend to be for a hundred years and be a bad neighbour. That's not what we want to be. We want to be a good neighbour. We want to be doing this in a responsible way, and we fully expect over the next five years as we go through the process to ultimately decide whether we're going to do it or not, that we will fully engage the community on what we're doing, what those choices are, and how do we do it. That will be in addition to what is the very significant process that we will run with respect to the formalized environmental assessments, both federal and provincial."

"The  process, which will include an engagement process which will be more extensive than what's required for just the environmental assessment requirements. We know that's going to be a significant effort. We know it's going to take lots of time. And we believe we can do it and we can get the community to say, yeah this is a good idea and we should do this."


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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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