Joint venture looking to use energy storage to help prevent ecological disaster

By Ken Kellar
Staff writer

A new project is underway to help generate the funding necessary to prevent an impending ecological disaster.

The Steep Rock Energy Storage Project is a novel idea that aims to provide a benefit not only to electricity users in the province, but also use funding generated by selling electricity to help clean up a potentially catastrophic ecological emergency brewing under the surface of the former Steep Rock Mine. Antonio Marinaro, the director of community relations with SCI Stantec Joint Venture, explained the project is entirely owned by a joint venture of area First Nations.

“The project being developed is 100 percent owned by Boundary Waters Anishinaabeg Development LP,” Marinaro said.

“The LP itself is made up of four First Nations; Couchiching First Nation, Mitaanjigamiing, Nigigoonsiminikaaning and Seine River First Nation, all of which are located within the Rainy River District. Boundary Waters is mandated to invest in large-scale impactful business initiatives that have the potential to generate shareholder wealth, create employment opportunities and deliver diverse skills and development training to its community members.”

The current project being undertaken and celebrated by the development LP is an energy storage facility that will be built on the site of the Steep Rock Mine that is located north of Atikokan. The project will use what is called pump storage technology to store energy during off peak demand periods from the electrical grid, and then release that energy back to the grid during high demand periods.

“The facility will designated to produce 840 megawatts for 10 hours a day,” Marinaro said.

“The facility is proposed to be connected to the IESO (Independent Electric System Operator) on their 230 KV grid, and could potentially be connected to Manitoba’s systems. The facility is going to provide a number of technical benefits to the IESO grid, which will enhance its overall reliability and efficiency. The development of the storage facility will utilize two of the abandoned pits at the mine and will complete the environmental remediation and reclamation of the mine at the same time.”

The significance of the mine remediation process can’t be understated. As a result of the mining process, the open pits at the mine have become contaminated with tailings and other waste products. In an article from the CBC published in 2016, a member of the Steep Rock Mine Rehabilitation Project told the public broadcaster that the contaminated water would escape the bounds of the pits by 2070, and lead to contamination of the waterways downstream from the location, including the Seine River, Rainy Lake and Rainy River. The energy storage project will also remove all of the environmental liability from the province of Ontario, Marinaro said.

“The key element of this whole project is the environmental part of it,” he said.

“[The mine pits] are probably, if not the largest, one of the largest environmental hazards Ontario has on its books. The energy storage project is a way for us to be able to fund that mitigation, it will be no cost to the province of Ontario for remediation, whereas right now I think they did a study and if I’m not mistaken it was around $850-million rehabilitation cost that was estimated some five years ago or more. It could potentially be much larger than that, and again that would go on to the Ontario taxpayers, whereas this project if and when it gets approved, will mitigate the environmental issues and take the burden off the taxpayers.”

The functionality of the project itself is relatively simple. During the night, when electricity costs are lower, water will be pumped from a lower reservoir to a higher one, where it will be stored. Once peak time for electricity comes around, the stored water at the top reservoir will be run back down through the same system, where the pump will then act as a generator, releasing the energy back into the grid at a profit. The facility doesn’t add any new generation capacity, instead acting only as storage. The project is currently awaiting the awarding of an energy storage agreement from the province before it can proceed to construction.

The capital cost of the facility and reclamation of the mine is approximately $2-billion, of which the Boundary Waters Anishinaabeg Development LP would spent $783-million locally in Atikokan and the surrounding area. the funding for the project will come from private investors rather than the provincial government. The facility will be built over a period of 52 months.

According to a release by the LP, that money would equate to 2600 man years of employment for residents.

“The facility will be operational for at least 50 years, and will create approximately 65-70 long-term, permanent jobs,” the release said.

“We carried out considerable public consultation, and we have support of the 28 chiefs of Grand Council Treaty #3, we have a resolution from the chief’s assembly, along with a resolution from the town of Atikokan” Marinaro said.

“It’s in everybody’s best interest to mitigate this. It’s a win-win for everybody that’s involved. The consultations will continue throughout the development of the project.”

Will Windigo is the chief of Nigigoonsiminikaaning First Nation, one of the member communities of the Boundary Waters Anishinaabeg Development LP. He explained the reclamation of the mine is an issue that’s been on their radar for a long time and the decision to form the LP to take the matter out of the hands of government is righting a mistake that was made when the mine was first dug without adequate closure plans.

“With the First Nations coming together and working under the Boundary Waters, it just made more sense for us to directly deal with this issue, seeing the huge effects it would have on our waterways,” Windigo said.

“We know how important the use of water is in our lives. It would have a huge impact on us so it’s something we take very seriously. This is something the government needs to have a really serious look at and try to fit in to future energy plans are when it comes to this, when we come to them with a solution to a problem they’ve had for some time. There’s a piece of Reconciliation to that as well. We talk about all this mining that happened way back in the 70s and whenever the mine was active. Back then our communities had no say and no economic opportunities to be participants in that. When we look at the daily threat we’re facing here now, we’re coming with a solution to a mistake that was made by the government back then.”

Windigo said he’s hopeful the government will give them the permissions they need to keep the project moving forward and head off a emergency situation before it becomes a disaster for more than just people in the immediate area.

“We’re hoping to get some movement and traction on this project,” he said.

“We’d rather be proactive more than reactive and I would hate to see the day that this would be affecting our waterways and way of life. Not only the Anishinaabe people in the community, but everybody downstream. We know how much we all like to hunt and fish, so it’s a huge impact on us. All we’re asking for is basically a ‘yes’ to move forward with the project. We’re not asking them for any money, we’re just asking for permission.”