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Rio Tinto buys into Sask. potash play

Another global mining giant has bought its way into greenfield potash mine development in southeastern Saskatchewan, this time in a joint venture with a second player.

North Atlantic Potash, a Canadian arm of Russian fertilizer firm JSC Acron, on Tuesday announced a joint venture deal with British-based mining giant Rio Tinto for potash exploration and “possible mine construction.”

The agreement is focused on about 600,000 of NAP’s 2.7 million-plus acres of potash permits in the region, spread over nine of NAP’s 26 exploration permits.

The exploration area covered in this deal extends from the eastern shore of Last Mountain Lake, about 40 km north of Regina, through to Broadview, about 150 km east of the city.

An “extensive exploration program is planned” under the direction of the joint venture partners, NAP said in a release.

“This agreement is another step to maximize the development potential of our vast potash exploration holdings in Saskatchewan,” NAP president Arie Zuckerman said in the release.

“We strongly believe that together with the professional experience and financial capabilities Rio Tinto brings into this project, we will be able to be the next producing mine in Canada.”

NAP CEO David Waugh added that the company has also recently completed an “extensive seismic survey” in the northeast segment of its holdings, in the area around Foam Lake, Sask., about 90 km northwest of Yorkton.

NAP “will be embarking this fall on a drilling campaign in that area,” Waugh said.

The joint venture with Rio Tinto, he said, allows NAP “to expand our resource base knowledge in additional permitted areas, leveraging our land and holdings, while moving forward on advancing our potash development strategy.”

The move by Rio Tinto — whose Canadian holdings already include Iron Ore Co. of Canada and aluminum producer Alcan — follows that of fellow global mining giant BHP Billiton, which made unsuccessful plays to take over Rio Tinto in 2008 and Saskatoon-based PotashCorp in 2010.

Billiton’s own moves into Saskatchewan potash in recent years, buying out smaller players and launching its own greenfield projects, have been seen as a potential game-changer, pressuring the current “oligopoly” of a few major firms such as PotashCorp that now handle much of the province’s potash resource.

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