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The Ring of Fire area of Northern Ontario.

Cliffs Natural Resources

Just as the federal government strives to speed up environmental reviews of major mining and energy projects, approvals for the giant Ring of Fire proposal in Northern Ontario are getting increasingly tangled.

On Monday, a key environmental group asked for provincial government mediation on how Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. plans to develop a giant chromite deposit in the fragile muskeg of the James Bay lowlands.

The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says Cleveland-based Cliffs is dramatically changing its plans for a mine without properly consulting with the public.

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"Several major alterations have been incorporated at the last minute and without the benefit of public scrutiny," the Wildlands League chapter of CPAWS says in a letter to Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley.

The letter says Cliffs is backing away from a long-term plan to do a combination of open-pit mining and underground mining, opting to stick with only open pit.

It also notes Cliffs is considering only a single route - a north-south road that would be heavily subsidized - to transport chromite ore out of the area, instead of considering other ways, such as an east-west corridor that could link first nations to much-needed infrastructure.

At stake is the framework Cliffs has set up for Ontario regulators to examine the environmental implications of its proposal.

The company wants to invest more than $3-billion to build a chromite mine and processing facility, but it needs approval from both federal and provincial environment officials first, through separate processes. Last summer, it released terms of reference for the Ontario process, asking for feedback from the public.

Environmentalists and First Nations did indeed give their feedback, and not all of it was favourable.

When Cliffs revised its plan and handed a final version to Ontario in January, the company did not incorporate any of the public's suggestions, CPAWS charges.

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The environmental protection group's request for mediation echoes concerns made last month by the Neskantaga First Nation, one of the bands located near the Ring of Fire.

"Our constitutionally protected aboriginal rights and title and treaty rights are not appropriately addressed in the amended terms of reference," the Neskantaga letter to the Minister says.

"Therefore numerous fundamental issues of concern arise on the amended terms of reference as submitted."

Ontario officials say they are considering the letters but say that Cliffs would have to agree to any kind of mediation.

The federal process for the project is equally gummed up.

First nations have joined forces to challenge a federal decision to conduct a comprehensive study, rather than a full-fledged review that would include public hearings. The challenge has been trudging through the court system for more than a year.

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Last week, a Federal Court judge chastised the federal government and the mining company for dragging out the case, ordering them to comply with a new, tighter schedule.

"These motions have had the effect of unnecessarily delaying this proceeding and the below timetable is set to ensure the expeditious hearing of this application and puts the onus on all parties to adhere strictly to the below timetable," the judge wrote, setting out a fixed schedule that will wrap up the hearings this summer.

The communities surrounding the Ring of Fire have a lot at stake.

The area is one of the poorest and most remote, pristine regions in Canada. Cliffs' mine and other projects under consideration could bring hundreds of jobs and billions in investment to a needy part of the country.

But the effect on major rivers, precarious wildlife and carbon sinks that make up the muskeg are unknown.

The federal government could decide any time that it wants to have a full-fledged public review of the Cliffs project and other proposals, said lawyer Judith Rae, acting on behalf of the Matawa First Nations.

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"They could say that any time. The chiefs are encouraging both Canada and Ontario to make the move, and put this into the right process and get going. Because the longer we wait around, the longer the project is in jeopardy."

A spokeswoman for Cliffs did not have any immediate comment on the requests for mediation or the court ruling last week.

But a spokeswoman for Tony Clement, the federal minister recently given responsibility for the Ring of Fire, says there will be ample opportunity for public input and consultation.

"There will be extensive consultations with the public and aboriginal groups to ensure a thorough understanding of all issues," said Andrea Mandel-Campbell in an email.

The complications come just a year after the federal Conservatives pulled out all the stops to make approvals and oversight of natural resource projects more efficient. That's a point not lost on the first nations and environmentalists who want to see a single - but thorough and public - review of Ring of Fire developments.

"If the feds really wanted to streamline, they would have had a joint panel to begin with," said Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning at CPAWS' Wildlife League chapter.

"The reason we need this process is because right now, the proponent, Cliffs, right now they are the ones who control everything. And all the information goes into a big black box."

Cliffs has said it wants to start production by 2016, but regulatory uncertainty has made the start date uncertain.

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