KEARNEY – Permitting issues are causing concern for Ontario Graphite, the company working to reinstate the life of an old graphite mine in the Town of Kearney.
Hiring is at a standstill as the company waits for permitting from the Ministry of Environment that will allow it to proceed with work that will allow the company to take environmental precautions, which includes building a secondary dam and expanding an existing one.
According to general manager Jerry Janik, this is work they are hoping to complete before winter is upon them.
The Ministry of Environment is undergoing discussions with First Nation communities.
According to Janik. Communities including Henvey Inlet, Wasauksing, Dokis, Magnetawan, Shawanaga, Metis and Algonquin were invited to attend three meetings with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, where permitting issues were discussed in detail.
“The aboriginal people that attended had questions that were addressed,” he said.
Janik also states that research indicates that they may be able to mine in the same area beyond what was initially suspected, noting that there appears to be a potential of a graphite load on the west side of where the open pit mine currently stands. Future expansion of the existing mine site would require amended permitting as opposed to an entirely new application process. Geophysical testing, a process by which an electrical charge is sent into the ground, reveals good potential.
“If you have a very conductive rock, chances are you have graphite,” Janik said.
Janik says future expansion in this direction would keep them from expanding to an area northeast of the current site.
“Which would keep us away from the Tim River, which would make a lot of people happy,” he said.
Beginning in July, crews began pumping about 400,000 cubic meters of water out of the open pit and into Graphite Lake, which involved daily water sampling and reports to the Ministry of Environment. It was a process that took about six weeks.
“The water quality was excellent,” said Janik. “That first step went extremely well.”
The remainder of the water will go into the tailings area, which will be treated.
“We don’t want that going into the lake,” he said.
Janik explains that the open pit mine operates much like an aggregate application. The rock is ground in water and a collector, in this case kerosene, is added, which sticks to the graphite, which is a carbon. Water is added and then a frothing agent that makes bubbles.
“The graphite would rather stick to air than water so it floats and is skimmed off the top,” he explained.
The product is then dried and screened.
“It’s a very simple process. It’s not like the gold industry, which uses a lot of chemicals,” he said. “In the processing world it’s a piece of cake.”
Graphite is traditionally used in products such as break pads and dry lubricants, and with purification of up to 99.9 per cent can be used for lithium batteries, fuel cells for cars and has a growing application with wind and solar applications as it is used to store power.
Ontario Graphite has customers lined up anxious for samples of their product.
“Seventy per cent of graphite comes from China and this is a very unstable place to get graphite,” he said. “From and environmental and health and safety standpoint, our standards are the highest in the world.”
On the site is a waste rock area, which Janik is hoping can be utilized.
“We want to work with aggregate people to get material certified as good aggregate,” he said.
Testing thus far has indicated that there is potential of producing a high quality aggregate.
“It reduces the footprint because it uses rock that we have to move anyway and if we get the right partner it should be economical for everyone,” said Janik.
He says the former mine operators left a lot of graphite behind, so the waste rock currently stacked up in the area is not good aggregate material. He says this is indicative of the amount of oxidization as a result of the iron sulphide, which is often present alongside graphite.
“We think we could do a lot better,” he said.
In the past, much of the work was done by contractors, which is why, according to Janik, so much graphite ended up with the waste rock.
“We’re going to do it ourselves,” he said. “We feel we’re going to be much more effective.”
Janik says there is a possibility that crushing and screening of the aggregate could be done on site.
Janik says mine manager Mike Wereszczynsky, who comes with 30 years of experience in the mining industry, and mill manager Yvan Lauzon, who carries with him 25 years and the experience of working on three other start-up operations before this, are invaluable to the operation.
However, he adds that they are making good on their promise to hire locally.
“Primarily everyone else is local,” he said.
But the wait, pending permits, has also forced the company into a hiring freeze, he added.
Ontario Graphite Ltd. has had to deal with the sins of the past. According to Janik, the previous mine operator ran out of money and closed its doors without taking the proper environmental precautions upon closure.
Janik says that everyone, including the Ministry of Natural Resources and Ministry of Environment, are aware of what was left in that company’s wake and says they are pleased with steps Ontario Graphite has taken to fix the issues.
“Our goal is not just to meet all the regulations, it’s to do better than expected,” he said.
He says many of the lakes in the area have an iron level higher than what provincial standards dictate.
“We can’t really fix, but we can certainly prevent any further issues,” he said.
The tailings management area is another area which Ontario Graphite has plans for improving. The surface of the area has a rusty tinge to it, again indicative of the iron sulphite that remains in the beach-like sand.
He says that if past mine operators had rehabilitated the area by planting vegetation, there would not have been an oxidizing environment, and thus no issue.
A sand containment dam should be in that area, and is one of projects waiting for permitting. In fact, according to Janik, previous operators had permitting for the dam, however it was never constructed.
Janik says that they plan to recycle about 85 per cent of the water they use back into their operations, replacing only the 10 to 15 per cent that will be lost through evaporation. This is another area where the permitting issue is holding up operations.
“If we have a bigger polishing pond, we’ll use less water,” he said.
The polishing pond is the area where the water is treated with lime in order to remove the iron before it goes into a marsh area and eventually into the Magnetawan River system.
“This dam has to be impervious,” he said. “A membrane liner has to be tied into the rock bed and how are we going to do that in the winter?”
The idea is to raise the top of the dam at the polishing pond by six meters, however, if this is not done before winter they will have the spring thaw to contend with and will be unable to properly treat the water.
“The polishing pond is about five times smaller than it should be. Which is why we’re going to make it six times larger,” he said.
However, as the number of cold days grows, so does Janik’s concern with the permitting delay.
“We’re running out of time to do the right thing,” he said.