Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Sons of Wichita

Published 12 July 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America's Most Powerful and Private Dynasty
By Daniel Schulman
Grand Central, 424 pages, $33

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

Charles and David Koch are famous for two things: enormous wealth derived from Koch Industries, and support for right-wing causes. Sons of Wichita covers both those themes, as well as the duo's decades-long conflict with their brothers.
Daniel Schulman, Washington senior editor for Mother Jones magazine, clearly did a thorough job researching along all three themes. And he seems to have taken pains to treat the controversial billionaires fairly -- perhaps a bit too fairly (but more on that later).
Koch Industries has its roots in oil refining, specifically a refining process Fred Koch and partners developed in the late 1920s. Since Fred's death in 1967, two of his four sons -- he had no daughters -- have expanded the company through acquisitions that include the makers of, among other things, Brawny paper towels and Lycra fabric.
Their empire also includes a notable Manitoba component: the Koch Fertilizer plant in Brandon.
For decades, Charles and David emphasized the "private" in the privately held company they control.
Sure, Charles used his wealth to fund the libertarian Cato Institute think-tank, and David was on the Libertarian presidential ticket in 1980. Otherwise, however, they kept a low profile and avoided the spotlight.
That changed after Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008.
"Charles considered him a 'dedicated egalitarian' who had 'internalized some Marxist models,'" Schulman writes. "David... declared him 'the most radical president we've ever had as a nation,' a leader steeped in the 'hard core economic socialist' politics of his Kenyan father."
The billionaires decided they had to act quickly in response to the Obama threat. They did so by seeing that Americans for Prosperity, an organization that gets much of its funding from the Kochs, supported the "tea party" rallies that sprang up across the U.S. in 2009.
Their role in anti-Obama activities became well-known and the brothers became, in Schulman's words, "the Punch to Obama's Judy in the partisan puppet show."
The business and political aspects of the Koch story are interesting, but Sons of Wichita actually begins with a vivid scene from the 1950s on the theme of sibling rivalry: teenage David and twin brother Bill, both wearing boxing gloves, angrily throwing punches at each other near the family estate in Kansas.
That scene foreshadowed a 20-year conflict Bill was to have with David and Charles through the 1980s and '90s. With oldest brother Frederick on Bill's side but minimally involved, the war was waged in the boardroom, until Bill was kicked out of Koch Industries, and then continued through a series of lawsuits Bill filed against David and Charles.
They reached a settlement in 2001, and haven't publicly sniped at each other since.
Bill has an energy company of his own, Oxbow Corp., and spent many millions of dollars to win the America's Cup yachting trophy in 1992.
Frederick, who will turn 81 in August, has since the 1960s led a guardedly private life, with no involvement in Koch Industries. He's known in New York and Europe as a generous patron of the arts.
Schulman and his aides have clearly done their research, as evidenced by 30 pages of endnotes, and Sons is very well-written.
But it's a tad disappointing that someone from a liberal-left "hell-raiser" magazine such as Mother Jones would pull his punches so much on the right-wing "Kochtopus."
Schulman goes out of his way to be fair to these fomenters of anti-Obama rage, whether they deserve it or not. A little invective would have been appreciated.
Charles and David might disagree with that, but surely as libertarians they would defend a reviewer's right to say it.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Home Away From Home

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Summer 2014:
The years and decades ahead look to be challenging times for HR staff at Canadian mining companies. Already, they’re finding it difficult to recruit the skilled tradespeople and professionals their employers need at remote mines.
A 2013 report published by the Mining Industry Human Resources Council projects the industry will need to hire 145,000 people in the next 10 years; more than half of its current workforce will have to be replaced. And the report notes that, if the industry expands more than expected, the actual number of new hires could be nearly 200,000 in an era when Canada’s population is aging and many Canadians are retiring.
Bright minds in HR have, of course, developed strategies and tactics in response to the situation. They’re trying to keep retirement-age workers. They’re recommending the placement of foreign workers. They’re recruiting from under-tapped sections of Canadian society – for example, First Nations.
Another part of the solution is to make mine camps more attractive by installing more of the urban comforts to which many of us have grown accustomed: truly good food, private bathrooms, big-screen televisions, cable/satellite TV channels, sophisticated fitness centres, high-speed Internet, etc.
Such “extras” aren’t really extras at all to the typical Canadian worker. They have, in fact, become an expected part of living in our affluent country. And when you’re away from loved ones and the neighbourhood Tim Hortons for weeks and months at a time, a few urban comforts can make the experience much more bearable. Having those comforts at the mine camp could be the difference between “Yes” and “No way!” when a job is offered.

'Hotelier Mindset’

PTI Group, a subsidiary of Texas-based Oil States International, has become a leader in creating comfortable workforce accommodations. Out of facilities in Edmonton, PTI designed and manufactured 120,000 square feet of living space for 400 workers at De Beers Canada’s Snap Lake diamond mine in the Northwest Territories, and then installed it on-site.
Designed with (according to PTI’s website) “a hotelier mindset,” the Snap Lake project included 400 private bedrooms in three-storey dormitories, as well as a two-storey structure containing recreation facilities, dining space, a training centre, a TV area and more.
“High-end” comforts are at the core of the accommodations that ATCO Structures & Logistics (ATCO S&L) has contracted to install at BHP Billiton’s Jansen potash project near Lanigan, Saskatchewan. It includes a 20,000-sq.-ft. sports complex with a gymnasium, weight room, raised running track, golf simulator and squash courts. There’s also a separate pre-engineered building to house a movie theatre.
The core building has a 1,200-person dining room and a separate private dining area, as well as a lounge, library, convenience store, medical centre and full laundry service. Living quarters feature bedrooms with private washrooms. Each room includes TV, phone and wireless Internet capabilities.
“A contract to build a mining accommodation of this scope and scale reinforces our long-standing reputation for having the capacity to deliver a large and comfortable workforce housing lodge,” ATCO S&L Chief Operating Officer Harry Wilmot said when the contract, which includes operating the facilities, was announced in 2012.
“Generally, the industry has asked for more of the creature comforts of home or what would be found at any hotel in an urban centre inside their accommodations,” Craig Alloway, ATCO S&L’s Vice President of Sales – North America, remarks from Calgary. “Generally the industry is moving toward what you refer to as posh accommodations. Typically a scenario where everyone gets his own washroom is probably the biggest differentiator from things that happened even as little as five years ago.”

With Satellite TV

“It’s not like the Hilton, but it’s closer than you’d expect” is how Haveman Brothers’ website describes the experience of staying at one of the Ontario company’s remote exploration camps. Features at a Haveman Brothers “turnkey remote camp solution” include indoor plumbing, phone and Internet access with WiFi, satellite TV, full bedrooms and dining areas. The firm pledges “four-season, super-insulated structures” that handle cold winters better than “your typical prospector tent.”
Haveman Brothers’ Muketei camp, about five kilometres from Noront Resources’ Eagle’s Nest project in the Ring of Fire region, responds to the mining sector’s need to appeal to potential recruits with living comforts. “They do ask for the flush toilets and Internet and all that, because they want their people to be more comfortable so they can attract better employees,” President Dave Haveman says from his office near Thunder Bay.
Winnipeg-based Expeditorsplus Incorporated has facilitated a “home away from home” feel for a Hudbay Minerals camp in northern Manitoba, says Expeditorsplus Vice President Jason White.
Originally a firm servicing fly-in fishing and hunting lodges, Expeditorsplus branched out into logistics for mining and mineral exploration camps “seven or eight years ago,” White says. “It’s an interesting industry to be in. It’s such a unique kind of niche industry.”
For the minerals sector they provide staffing, supplies, catering, housekeeping and other ingredients for operating a remote camp. The Hudbay camp includes TV, Internet and phone service, and every room has a TV with DVD player, White says.
First Nation-owned Athabasca Catering provides housekeeping and janitorial services, camp supply and management and (of course) catering to uranium mining giant Cameco and others in northern Saskatchewan. Its Manager of Business Development and Marketing, Kevin Danchuk, says seeing that employers are comfortable has become “pretty critical” to mining and exploration companies.
“They know that when you’re working in isolated areas with long hours, the food and services are very important,” he remarks from Saskatoon. “We’ve been servicing Cameco for 20 years already. The parameters of the contract have changed over the years. There’s more emphasis on the quality of food and healthy options. Certainly expanding the options is important.”
Danchuk also observes that recreational offerings have changed over the years. There are more exercise rooms with wider assortments of equipment. There are golf simulators, weight rooms and aerobics spaces where once the rec options tended to the more sedentary or prosaic.
Danchuk opines that a good gym isn’t easily accommodated by your typical modular structure, but ATCO’s Alloway points out that the Calgary-headquartered company has made vibrant exercise spaces for its clients. “We provide numerous facilities using modular box construction for fitness areas. Typically if they want a gymnasium or a court-style fitness area, those facilities require a different building technology other than wood-framed modular construction,” he says, adding ATCO provides all those building solutions.
Alloway says ATCO has been “an innovator in terms of using multiple construction strategies. … We’ll assemble multiple boxes together to create a building. We’ll also use pre-engineered building technologies to build a gymnasium or movie theatre or assembly space. We’ll also use soft-wall structures – with high-tension fabrics – to use as a facility inside a camp as well.
“We’ll match whatever our customer’s requirements are,” he states. “We can accommodate the poshest of living circumstances, or we can manage around a budget if that’s their driver.”
A nice place to hang one’s hat, a chance to surf the web and check for email, a place to practice the ol’ golf swing … add a Tims double-double and doughnut, and it sounds like home.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Managing Risk While Digging for Minerals

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Spring 2014:

Opportunities abound for Canadian mining companies, but so do big risks. A sudden shift in the political landscape or public policy can drastically affect a mine's profitability. One accident or natural calamity could imperil an operation's future. The road to riches in mineral extraction is littered with hazards.

Smart businesses are ahead of the curve when it comes to risk management. They take on risks with full knowledge and strategies. They have backup plans. And they have super-knowledgeable partners to help them navigate the risky terrain: insurance brokers and carriers who know all the ins and outs of risk management in their sector.

"Oh, it's definitely a partnership," Bernie Robertson agrees from his office at Knox Insurance Brokers Ltd. (KIBL) in North Bay. He says brokers offer the expertise in risk management that miners usually don't have, and they supply that expertise at a small fraction of what it would cost to have a full-time risk management expert working in-house at the mining firm.

Robertson, who lends his insurance experience and know-how to the Canadian Diamond Drilling Association as a board member, says good risk management is critical to mining and exploration businesses.

It's a three-way partnership among miners, insurance carriers and insurance brokers, says Cosmo Racano, Managing Director at Marsh Canada Limited in Winnipeg.

From his office in Toronto, RSA Insurance Assistant Vice-President (Energy) Michael Marino says pretty much the same thing. "We work as partners – insurance carriers, the brokers and clients," he declares. "We all work together to see what the best solution is for the client." RSA sells insurance through hundreds of brokers across Canada.

Marino says comprehensive risk management can be difficult to sell to some of the mineral sector's more daring operators.

"The junior mining companies, they're huge risk takers," he observes. "You've got to give them credit for, with the economy the way it's been in recent years, taking the risk and forging ahead.

"It can be hard to get them involved in risk management at that level because they're such risk takers, but it's essential these days that they have a focus on risk management. There are so many ways that you could be affected, especially on the D&O side (directors and officers), where you have a lot of obligations to shareholders and the liabilities can be huge.

He recommends coverage in 'professional liability' (claims of negligence or misrepresentation) and 'errors and omissions' (mistakes and oversights by professionals working for a company). Without insurance, problems in these areas could hurt shareholders and board members, or shut down a mine.

"You really have to be on the ball with all the changes taking place," he continues. "Risk management really does take time, but in the long run it really separates the winners from the losers."

The up-front investment is worth it, he says, because "it will help you sustain your business over the years."

Marino says much of risk management comes down to supply chain management. "The world's becoming smaller, there's specialization, who's supplying your power – you know, all these things come into play, and any one of them can take you out of business or set you down for quite a while. It may have nothing to do with your operation on its own.

"You basically have to look at a business continuity plan where you start right from the nuts and bolts at the beginning and take it all the way through from the supplier side right to where you supply to your customers. A customer going out of business or not being able to receive your product can be just as harmful to your business as losing a critical supplier."

Drawing up a business continuity plan involves determining and evaluating your critical suppliers, and where the biggest impacts would be in the event of an interruption in supply. Marino says a good business continuity plan "really captures all the risks when you work it through. You have the operational risks that you have to look at. There's reputational risk. There's environmental risk. You capture a lot of that when you go through the business continuity plan."

A good, experienced broker is invaluable in this process, Marino remarks. "Brokers are very familiar with dealing with this whole process. They help you evaluate your business, where you're vulnerable."

A broker can help you plan for possible supply-chain problems that aren't in the insurance policy, he adds. "There are insurance products out there that help you compensate for some of those supply-chain issues, but some of it currently is non-insurable – I mean, because they're risks that insurance companies don't supply coverage for."

Among the generally non-insurable risks is interruption in power supply. "Unless you have contingent business interruption insurance, and you cover the specific risk that applied to the power, you would be without coverage," says Marino. "So, as long as the power's down, you can't operate. That means you would be losing revenue."

In the expert opinion of KIBL's Robertson, the most important categories of risk management for Canadian mining are environmental, employment practices and tax liability. "I can help you with two out of three," he adds with a chuckle, "but my advice on taxes is to find a good accountant."

For Canadian companies' overseas operations, the most important category of risk is political.

"Resource nationalism is the foremost issue," says RSA's Marino, pointing to recent troubles for Toronto-headquartered Centerra Gold to illustrate. Centerra's Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan was the scene of large protests in May and June. Some protesters were calling for outright nationalization of the mine. A state commission has said Centerra is paying the government too little and causing great environmental harm.

"As governments are stretched for more revenue, they're going to look at different avenues." Marino says. "As well, the people, once they get more involved in those areas, their incomes are going up and they become more knowledgeable. … and risks multiply."

Foreign operations also risk getting tangled in local fraud and corruption, he adds. "When you're using third-party consultants in other countries, your D&O can be exposed to that. You don't always know what kind of negotiations take place between consultants and the various governments and other officials. So there's significant exposure out there in regard to anti-corruption law."

A good broker can be of invaluable assistance to a miner sorting out options in risk management and insurance.

Marsh's Racano points out that large insurance brokers such as Marsh have in-house engineers, environmental specialists and other experts who help find risk-management solutions for clients, he adds. A client might have a key piece of equipment that is crucial to operations; Marsh staff would see that and advise on a backup plan that can be effected in the event of a breakdown to ensure that operations resume as quickly as possible.

Equipment breakdown insurance is strongly recommended.

Seeing all the risk-management pieces come together through the carrier-broker-client partnership brings a feeling of satisfaction to RSA's Marino.

"We have a great partners that we work with," he says "That really helps. I like to see companies succeed – when they go all the way from the junior phase to operational. The group that we have here, we have longevity with our clients. We're in the business of staying around for a long time, through thick and thin."

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: Young Money

Published 22 February 2014 in the Winnipeg Free Press:
 
Young Money: Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits
By Kevin Roose
Grand Central Publishing, 320 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

The Wall Street analysts at the heart of Young Money don't party as hard as The Wolf of Wall Street's Jordan Belfort, but then they're working with much smaller disposable incomes.

After all, the highest-paid among the eight recent college grads shadowed by journalist Kevin Roose pulls in maybe $150,000 in a year -- big bucks by most people's standards but a small fraction of what Belfort scammed in his days of living high.

This is the second book by Roose, a business writer for New York magazine.

He followed the young financiers for three years, beginning at their recruitment by investment banks in 2010 -- less than two years after the great crash of September 2008 -- and found them to be appreciative of their remuneration but generally unhappy with their work lives.

Young Money is entertaining, helped in good part by the author's remarkable adeptness at weaving several narrative threads without confusing the reader.

Wall Street banks expect their new recruits to work 100-hour weeks and be available at any time; as a result, first- and second-year analysts tend to be highly stressed and lack robust social lives outside the office.

By the third year of Roose's project, some of his eight subjects have left the banks, a couple have left the finance sector altogether, and all seem at least a little weary and disillusioned. Pay aside, the Wall Street life is a hard life for rookies.

Short, breezy chapters introduce us to and then follow the odysseys of the recruits. All start their jobs with an eagerness that quickly dissipates as demands wear them down.

Chelsea, for instance, begins her time at Merrill Lynch as a diligent member of the firm's public finance team, but quickly grows frustrated with working long hours under a high-strung control freak who doesn't have her back when she makes a mistake.

Jeremy works at Goldman Sachs, where his days are made miserable by a boss with an explosive temper; after his first year, he notices that his own temper has shortened and he's often unkind.

Chelsea and Jeremy both leave their employers. When Jeremy quits, he writes on Facebook that "the nightmare is over."

Roose admits that his pool of "conflicted" sources may well be an unrepresentative sample.

"My banker sources were atypical by definition -- daring or disillusioned enough to be willing to risk getting fired by talking to me, and kind and introspective enough to spend hours at a time answering probing questions about their lives," he writes.

The tracking period of the recruits runs through the Occupy Wall Street days of 2011-2012. Roose's subjects give little thought to the Occupy movement, though none of them are entirely dismissive towards the protesters' issues.

A couple of them do wonder aloud, however, if their work is doing much good at all for society.

Roose finds it sad that so many bright people from prestigious universities get drawn in by Wall Street's money appeal every year.

He worries that Wall Street will change some of the "socially conscious" young people he met, and change them for the worse.

He wants to see the allure of Wall Street fade so that more "highly creative young people use their abilities for purposes other than padding an investment bank's bottom line."

There's nothing deep or groundbreaking about Young Money, unless you're surprised to learn that Wall Street is a high-stress work environment.

Nevertheless, it's a thoroughly readable look at what it's like to toil as a junior analyst for a big investment bank. It gets a "buy" rating.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review: The Witness Wore Red

Published 5 October 2013 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

The Witness Wore Red: The 19th Wife Who Brought Polygamous Cult Leaders to Justice
By Rebecca Musser with M. Bridget Cook
Grand Central Publishing, 340 pages, $29

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

No fiction writer, not even one as darkly imaginative as Stephen King, could create a villain creepier than Warren Jeffs.

The 57-year-old convicted rapist is the feature miscreant in Rebecca Musser's engrossing memoir of life in a closed society of polygamist Mormons.

Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) members, living mainly on a patch of desert straddling the Utah-Arizona border, observe every pronouncement he sends to them from inside a Texas penitentiary where he is serving a life sentence.

FLDS members cling to the doctrine of "plural" or "celestial" marriage, a principle discarded by the mainstream Mormon church in 1890. They believe a righteous man can secure a place in the highest level of heaven by taking three or more wives.

In clear, crisp prose, Musser and co-author Bridget Cook take us on a journey from growing up in a household with more than 20 other children and more than one mom, to being a teenage bride for an 85-year-old man, to escape and a life of advocacy for the oppressed and enslaved.

This insider's account includes truly shocking details on how the sect robs girls of their freedom and dignity.

Perhaps the most disturbing content is a partial transcript of an audio recording of Jeffs having sex with a 12-year-old wife while other wives watched. In comparison, the renegade sect leader Roman Grant in the HBO series Big Love was a choir boy.

But Musser and Cook aim for inspiration rather than sensationalism, with themes of faith and empowerment.

Musser was born Rebecca Wall, the fifth of 14 children from her father's second wife. Her father eventually had three wives and 24 children.

Shortly after her 19th birthday in 1995, Musser became the 19th wife of Rulon Jeffs, who was president of the FLDS and Warren's father.

They lived in the Jeffs family's sprawling compound in Hildale, Utah, and Rulon added many more young wives before his death at age 92 in September 2002.

Warren repeatedly admonished Musser that it was her religious duty to obey and please the old church leader in every way, including sexually.

Two months after Rulon's death, Warren as the new FLDS president told Musser she must remarry.

He said her new husband could be him, and the possibility wasn't far-fetched since he had already married some of his father's other young widows.

In response, she quickly planned and executed an escape from Hildale.

She and a young FLDS man named Ben Musser fled to Oregon and married.

They're now divorced but both live in Idaho, where they are parents to a son and daughter.

She has testified against Jeffs and other FLDS men to help bring them to justice for their crimes against girls as young as 12.

She wore red each time she testified against Jeffs because he had banned FLDS members from wearing the colour.

As founder of a non-profit foundation called Claim Red, she is now a voice for victims of human trafficking.

A younger sister, Elissa Wall, co-authored the 2008 book Stolen Innocence about her own experiences in and escape from the FLDS.

Atheists hoping The Witness Wore Red slams faith will be disappointed. Musser rejects leadership by one man, but not religion and spirituality.

It's also notable that the word "cult" appears in the subtitle but nowhere in the memoir itself, as Musser remains respectful and sympathetic toward the community she left -- even though much of that community despises her as a traitor.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Review: Denial

Published 1 June 2013 in the Winnipeg Free Press:

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind
By Ajit Varki and Danny Brower
Twelve, 384 pages, $30

Reviewed by Mike Stimpson

This thought-provoking work of popular science contends that the human brain must have found a way to push thoughts of death aside before the species could develop into fully aware, intellectually robust beings.
That's debatable, but the authors certainly present an intriguing theory, and in mostly jargon-free prose that non-scientists can follow.
Denial's provenance, as explained in the book's introduction, is interesting on its own.
Ajit Varki, a physician and professor at the University of California, San Diego, met University of Arizona geneticist Danny Brower at a biology conference in 2005.
They had a private conversation in which Brower explained his theory about a critical point in the evolution of our species.
Varki found his own thoughts returning to the idea over the ensuing two years, and eventually decided to call Brower for further discussion.
Brower had, however, died of a rare blood vessel disease, his theory not developed into a full-length book.
Now India native Varki has finished the job, having polished and added to a manuscript Brower left behind.
The pair contend that, at some juncture early in our evolutionary saga, our ancestors had to have developed the neurological wiring for reality denial. They say it was absolutely essential.
Here's why.
An animal with full awareness of itself and the world around it would understand that its own death is inevitable.
The fully aware animal, say the authors, would be unable to cope and survive with the acknowledgement of mortality.
The mortality-conscious individual's behaviour would be too weird for others in its species, and it would therefore not mate -- an "evolutionary dead end," since it would produce no offspring.
To avoid this dead end, Varki and Brower contend, Homo sapiens needed to have evolved the ability to deny or repress unpleasant bits of reality. In particular, to deny the reality of mortality.
The pair defines denial as a "defence mechanism used to reduce anxiety by denying thoughts, feelings or facts that are consciously intolerable."
They say the capacity for reality denial allowed us to "become really, really smart" compared to other animals, while any individual of another species who developed full awareness would been doomed to hit the brick wall at the end of the evolutionary dead end.
Varki and Brower present (to quote Charles Darwin) "one long argument" for their speculative theory, but admit they can't "prove" it.
Even assuming that it's such a bad thing to realize one is going to die, couldn't there be other ways to avoid the dead end?
Isn't it possible, for example, that the drive to pursue pleasure and avoid pain is just so much stronger than worries about death? Or that social or community priorities, such as the support and defence of one's family or group, override mortality concerns?
But you don't have to buy into the central thesis to appreciate Denial. There's plenty more to keep the reader engaged.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opportunity in a Ring

Published in Mid-Canada Forestry & Mining, Spring 2013:

The Klondike Gold Rush is undoubtedly the most storied chapter in Canadian mining history. Tens of thousands of prospectors migrated to western Yukon in the 1890s after news of a massive gold discovery in the Klondike region hit economic hubs such as Seattle and San Francisco. Rich deposits did make some of those prospectors wealthy men, but most left the Klondike just as poor as when they came in, if not poorer.
Today’s interest in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire is similar in some ways. Again there’s a frenzy over mineral riches in a remote area of Canada. And, as in the great gold rush of yore, it’s largely over one mineral – in this case, chromite. But that’s where the similarities more or less end.
For one thing, the word “rush” seems out-of-place in today’s regulated mining sector. Anyone who wants to start mining at a particular site has regulatory hurdles to overcome and communities to consult. Getting from the idea of a mine to an actual mine is a challenging, years-long process.
Still, there are many companies willing to endure that process in order to tap into the apparently great mineral wealth beneath the Ring of Fire’s surface of wetlands, rocks and trees. There are, after all, riches below the surface and considerable profits to be made.

The Ring

The Ring of Fire is a crescent-shaped area approximately 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, in the James Bay lowlands north of the Albany River. The Attawapiskat River runs through some of it. Predominantly muskeg, the Ring is more than 5,100 sq. km of land hitherto untouched by industry. Wildlife in the region includes some species at risk – black terns, bald eagles, wolverines and woodland caribou among them. Muskeg, birds and furry mammals aren’t what make the area so intriguing to miners, of course. The big attraction in this case is chromite, a dark iron chromium oxide that’s valued for its resistance to high temperatures. Chromite is a key ingredient in the stainless steel that our pots and pans are made of. It’s also commonly used for protective coating of automobile parts. There is at present no chromite mine in North America.
The sizable chromite deposits are vestiges of geological events that occurred 2.7 billion years ago. Magma containing chromium rose from the Earth’s mantle and dissolved iron-rich rock in the crust. The result was crystallized chromite. The same thing, more or less, happened in many places on our planet, but for some reason it left especially rich deposits of chromite in the Ring of Fire.
Early in the current century, De Beers Canada (which operates the Victor Diamond Mine to the east) found significant copper and zinc deposits there. Subsequent exploration uncovered chromite deposits that rival those at any location in South Africa, the world’s leading producer. Other minerals were also found, including nickel, gold and platinum-group metals. Because it was a somewhat ring-shaped “hot” exploration region, and (some say) because a key player was a Johnny Cash fan, it was dubbed the Ring of Fire.
The Ontario government said in May 2012 that Ohio-based Cliffs Natural Resources is expected to spend more than $3 billion on getting chromite out of the Ring and to market. That sum includes $1.85 billion for a processing facility in Sudbury. “This is very, very important, not only for Sudbury but for the entire province,” then-Minister of Northern Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci said at a news conference in the nickel city.
Other companies are also keen on getting a piece of the Ring. Toronto-headquartered Noront Resources is focused on developing its Eagle’s Nest nickel-copper-PGM project in the area, as well as a high-grade chromite deposit dubbed Blackbird. Bold Ventures, also out of Toronto, has reached an agreement with KWG Resources under which Bold will operate exploration at Koper Lake and KWG will fund the exploration. Dozens of other companies have staked thousands of claims.
But the odyssey from exploration to mining won’t be smooth sailing. Environmentalists, politicians and aboriginal groups have all expressed concern over mining companies’ Ring ambitions.

Challenges

Indeed, opposition politicians were quick to pounce on the fact that Bartolucci’s Sudbury news conference had no First Nations representation. “If First Nations aren’t part of (development), it won’t be happening,” Norm Miller, MPP for Parry Sound-Muskoka, told the Toronto Star. “You could also ask why was the federal government not part of (the news conference). There are federal and provincial reviews. There are still a lot of challenges going forward … despite it sounding like the ground was being broken today.”
Noting that the all-weather road Cliffs wants to build from the town of Nakina to its Black Thor (McFaulds Lake) project would run through sensitive wildlands, a leading conservation group said the plan lacked proper assessment of environmental impacts. “The most important decision is the location of infrastructure. Where, how much, and what? These are questions we needed Ontario to ask,” said Janet Sumner of CPAWS Wildland League.
Communities in the Ring of Fire’s vicinity include Webequie and Nibinamik (Summer Beaver) First Nations to the west, Marten Falls First Nation to the south, and Neskantaga First Nation to the southwest. All are members of Matawa First Nations, and they are remote reserves lacking road access. In January 2011 Matawa named Raymond Ferris, former chief of Constance Lake First Nation, as its Ring of Fire Coordinator responsible for seeing that member communities participate in and benefit from Ring development.
First Nations see mining as a provider of jobs and development in reserves with extremely high unemployment and vexing social problems that include high rates of drug addiction and youth suicide. They also recognize the social benefit of a road finally connecting them to the outside world, and for that reason Marten Falls wants the road rerouted to hook up with its 300 residents.
But Matawa First Nations are also concerned about water pollution and other impacts on the area’s ecology. “We know we’re going to get some benefits once they start development,” Marten Falls Chief Eli Moonias told the Canadian Press last year. “We know that in some ways we’ll be involved as well. The issue is the environment.”
Moonias said a road connection could help Marten Falls improve its drinking-water situation by enabling easier access for experts and suppliers who could help fix the reserve’s water-quality problems. Marten Falls’ drinking-water supply is in need of major repair.
The Province signalled its keen interest in seeing development move forward by creating a Ring of Fire Secretariat within the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines. The federal government has designated Treasury Board President Tony Clement as its point man for progress in the area.
Cliffs aims to begin production at the Black Thor deposit by late 2016 even though the company’s President and CEO, Joseph Carrabba, told analysts last October that cost pressures and other factors could push the start to 2017.
“Right now, the target remains 2016 and it’s a schedule that’s got some risk of slippage,” Cliffs Senior Vice-President Bill Boor told a Sudbury Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience in early November.
Factors that could delay production include environmental assessment processes and trying to reach working agreements with First Nations. Boor said discussions with First Nations are progressing but “we need to move the relationship to the point where they’re willing to work with us in this project. We’re not asking them to agree with the project. We’re asking them to work with us to figure it out. And we do need a bit of breakthrough there.”
In an email to this author, Cliffs Public Affairs Representative Jennifer Mihalcin said the company must “finalize a definitive deal” with Ontario before it can begin the construction phase of its ferrochrome project. Although that deal was not yet done as of March 2013, and despite the political uncertainties associated with an impending provincial election, she reiterated the company’s expectation that Black Thor operations will “commence at the end of 2016.”
In an interview with the Financial Post, Noront’s then-CEO Wes Hanson said Noront could conceivably begin commercial production at Eagle’s Nest by 2016 or 2017. He said Noront would use the road Cliffs wants built and pay for road use in proportion to how much freight it hauls down the route. He explained that Noront was planning to produce 150,000 tonnes of concentrate annually while Cliffs was planning to produce about 20 times as much.
In short, there’s still much work to be done before anyone gets rich on the Ring of Fire.