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Dalton McGuinty bets big on mining, critics fear eco-disaster

Toronto Star

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By Tanya Talaga, Queen's Park Bureau

Premier Dalton McGuinty hopes a massive northern ore deposit will be the motherlode for Ontario's economy but critics are warning of an environmental disaster akin to the Alberta tar sands.

At stake is the development of one of the world's largest untapped deposits of chromite, used to make stainless steel.

With aboriginal leaders demanding a greater say in any such project in a vast area west of James Bay, McGuinty is gambling he will be able to appease critics. The scheme is a key pillar in the premier's five-year plan, known as Open Ontario, to boost the lagging economy.

By making the development a cornerstone of Monday's throne speech, the premier is giving the controversial project the government's stamp of approval.

But the executive director of Ontario Nature, one of the province's oldest conservation organizations, warned that unchecked development in the James Bay lowlands could destroy wildlife habitat, contaminate nearby lakes, rivers and soil, and damage the boreal forest, a globally significant carbon bank.

McGuinty said Ontario wants to pursue development "in a responsible way, keeping with our plan to protect the north and make sure we have all the partners at the table.

"This represents a tremendous opportunity for us. Obviously we want to get it right," he said.

But there is currently a First Nations blockade in the Ring of Fire, the area where the chromite is found, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay. It sits between Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation. The two groups, along with four other First Nations, have blocked landing strips at Koper Lake and McFauld's Lake since Jan. 18. Planes are unable to land at either site.

Grand Chief Stan Beardy of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, which represents 49 First Nation communities, said government officials "can make any promises they want. But at the end of the day, there will be no resource development happening on our homelands without consent by First Nations."

There are 32,000 mining claims in the Ring of Fire, which is roughly 5,120 square kilometres - approaching the size of Prince Edward Island.

The area also has nickel, copper, zinc, gold and diamonds, but the chromite deposit is the only one of its kind on the continent.

"There is no substitute for it. This is the only source in North America," said McGuinty.

Caroline Schultz, executive director of Ontario Nature, said the concern "is there are no details at all. There is no plan we can tell."

Unregulated development would hurt the boreal forest, an important carbon storehouse, and harm at-risk wildlife such as the woodland caribou, the bald eagle and the short-eared owl.

"If development happens on a massive scale, harming the boreal forest. ... it could be an environmental issue on the scale of the Alberta tar sands."

Ontario has promised to protect 50 per cent of the boreal forest. But Schultz notes there has been no funding announced for land-use planning and no meaningful role so far for area First Nations. The move to develop the ore deposit is going "way ahead" of the land-use process, she said. "This is all way too fast."

It is unclear whether the project would involve closed or open pit mining.

The Liberals say the chromite deposit could bring thousands of jobs to the struggling area, which is saddled with high unemployment and has seen an epidemic of youth suicides in recent years.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Chris Bentley said the key is to get the "companies, First Nations and the province working cooperatively together."

Bentley added that opening up the north will take many years and can't be done without full participation of the First Nations.

NDP MPP Gilles Bisson (James Bay-Timmins) complained the Liberals are providing no specifics. "How will the rules work when it comes to what will be required of companies, for them to both satisfy the needs of First Nations and environmental concerns? What they want is clear rules, none of which exist now in the mining act," he said.

In the throne speech, the Liberals also outlined their intention to develop a provincial water strategy.

"The next frontier in the green economy is water," said McGuinty, noting the need for technology and services to help people worldwide conserve and clean water.

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