Efforts to build a 140-kilometre highway from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, N.W.T., have suffered a major setback, after the project was not approved by an environmental screening committee.

The road project has been turned down by the Environmental Impact Screening Committee, which assesses proposed developments in the N.W.T.'s Inuvialuit settlement region.

"The environmental impact committee has just killed this project," Tuktoyaktuk Mayor Merven Gruben, who has long pushed for the all-weather road, told CBC News on Tuesday.

"For the northern N.W.T. — Tuk, Inuvik, Beaulfort Delta — it was already looking bleak. Now this really makes it look bleak because whatever chance we had of getting some work happening this coming winter is basically shot."

The committee ruled that the road would cause negative impacts on the environment and wildlife. Gruben said the committee referred the application to the Environmental Impact Review Board for a more detailed assessment, a process that he said could kill the project.

Gruben said many people in the remote Arctic community have been waiting for an all-weather road to Inuvik.

In September, the federal government announced it would spend $975,000 to fund the project's feasibility study. Gruben said he plans to meet with federal Transport Minister John Baird to discuss the matter.

Ice roads closed

The decision came as warm spring weather closed Mackenzie Delta ice roads from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik, N.W.T. early on Tuesday.

Motorists drove on the melting road Monday night and early Tuesday morning to ensure they got back to their home communities safely. The convoy of vehicles took more than five hours for what would be a two-hour drive during the middle of winter.

"It has to close sooner or later. I'm glad we lasted through the weekend for the jamboree," Gruben said, referring to the annual Beluga Jamboree in his community this past weekend.

"Some people got home only around six o'clock this morning. It was pretty rough. You just have to take it slow and you can still make it."

Now with the ice roads closed, Tuktoyaktuk and Aklavik will have no road access until the winter freeze-up.

Grocery stores and other businesses will have to get their food and other goods flown up, often at higher prices for them and for customers.

"Supposed to get another truck up today, but it got cancelled [at the] last minute," said Marius Drisco, who manages Stanton's grocery store in Tuktoyaktuk.

"I was getting in produce, dairy an my final order of frozen [goods]. Now we got to deal with our planes."