A U.S. international mining firm may seek permission from the Ontario government to process some of the precious ore it hauls out of the Ring of Fire to Asia.

Cliffs Natural Resources, an Ohio-based mining giant, is preparing to extract what is estimated to be one of the world’s largest chromite discoveries in an ecologically sensitive part of northern Ontario, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.

The deposit is estimated to be worth $30 billion. International mining companies have staked 9,000 claims covering 480,000 hectares.

Most of the chromite will be processed and refined at plants in northern Ontario, but the company says some of the concentrate could be shipped offshore to Asia.

Cliffs is proposing a ferrochrome production facility with an annual capacity of approximately 600,000 tonnes, said Pat Persico, Cliffs senior manager of global communications.

“The Cliffs Chromite project viability is dependent on accessing Asian markets as well,” she wrote.

According to Cliffs chromite project plans, some concentrate may be shipped directly to refineries outside of Canada.

The potential economic spinoffs of the Ontario chromite haul is enormous — a processing plant and railway line will be built to transport the ore — but union leaders fear the Cliffs move could cost the province thousands of potential jobs.

If chromite is mined in Ontario, it should be processed in Canada, said William Brehl, national president of the Teamsters Maintenance of Way railway track and infrastructure workers.

Brehl fears the company will refine only some of the product here and ship the rest to Asia.

“They are going to let us wet our beak and then they are going to ship the rest out of the country,” he said. “If you mine it here, you refine and process it here or you leave it in the ground.”

There are facilities in Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins and Sudbury that could be used and many workers that have experienced devastating job losses, he said.

“Do we want 500 jobs or 5,000, 10,000 or 15,000 jobs?” he said. “The North has been starving for awhile.”

Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath questioned Premier Dalton McGuinty over possible job losses to China Wednesday in the Legislature.

“The sad and frustrating thing is, we’ve seen this story before,” said Horwath. “Xstrata in Timmins put 700 people out of work after they exported processing jobs across the border into Quebec.”

She added Cliffs claims that by processing the chromite into concentrate, they won’t need the province’s approval under the Mining Act to send that quasi-processed material over to China for full processing.

McGuinty shot back that Ontario is part of the global economy. “We are a free-trading jurisdiction,” he said.

Rick Bartolucci, Ontario’s minister of northern development and mines cautioned it is still early days as the mining has yet to begin.

But if Cliffs wants to go outside the country they must seek an exemption from the Mining Act and that has to be approved by cabinet.

“I will do everything in our power to ensure the processing facility is located in northern Ontario,” he said. “We are at the beginning of the road but at the end of the day we want to ensure that we maximize the job potential the Ring of Fire has for Ontarians.”

Progressive Conservative MPP Norm Miller said it would be a huge loss for Ontario if some of the product was to be shipped to Asia for processing — but he can see why companies would want to do so.

“The refining process uses so much power — about one-third of the cost to refine chromite is electricity. Obviously, Ontario’s electricity policy makes it challenging to do business in Ontario,” he said.

The Ring of Fire has huge potential for the entire province, he said. “It should be a 100-year-old mine. To lose the refinery would be a huge loss.”