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Worries mount over what busy mining road in Nunavut could mean for caribou migration

The Kivalliq Inuit Association says a road connecting the Whale Tail pit project to the Meadowbank mine, near Baker Lake, will bisect a caribou migratory route and will have more frequent traffic than any other mine in Nunavut.

A vehicle could travel every 6 minutes from the Whale Tail pit project to the Meadowbank mine

The Lorillard and Wager Bay herds of caribou have the most potential to be affected by the Whale Tail pit project. Agnico Eagle's proposed expansion of its Meadowbank gold mine operations is being met with concerns about how a new road could affect caribou migration. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Agnico Eagle's proposed expansion of operations near its Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake, Nunavut, is facing opposition.

The Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA), the Government of Nunavut and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization have all expressed concern over how a roadway connecting a new open pit mine to processing facilities at Meadowbank will affect caribou migration.

Their concerns appeared in their final written submissions to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, submitted in advance of the final public hearing on the project, which begins on Sept.19 in Baker Lake.

The majority of vehicles travelling the road would be trucks, KIA estimates.

Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. had an Aug. 28 deadline to submit its written response to concerns before the hearing. 

The new mining operation — the Whale Tail pit — is about 50 kilometres northwest of Meadowbank. It would operate as an open pit mine for between three and four years, and requires a road connecting it to milling facilities at Meadowbank. Agnico Eagle expects mining could begin as early as 2019.

Most mining traffic in Nunavut

Approximately 8.3 million tonnes of ore would be transported to Meadowbank via the access road.

"Caribou are already being deflected around the [all-weather access road] possibly to the north of Meadowbank to where the project haul road will be located," the KIA's submission reads.

The KIA said the proposed road would have more frequent traffic than any other mining road in Nunavut. Based on the proposed amount of passengers, it estimates a vehicle will travel down the road as often as every six minutes — 75 per cent of which would be trucks.

The KIA says caribou have already shifted their migratory routes around the Meadowbank mine, and it suggests the new haul road will bisect that route.

The Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization echoed that, saying local hunters have complained that the presence of the Meadowbank project has forced caribou to stay further from town.

Protection measures not enough, says gov't

While Agnico Eagle has said the "incremental and cumulative effects from the project will not have a significant adverse effect," the Government of Nunavut disagrees.

The government's submission says past research shows caribou can be delayed by weeks in their migration if they have to cross a road even less busy than what is proposed for Whale Tail.

"During migratory periods a short interaction with a site of development may be sufficient to induce a long-lasting disturbance effect resulting in delayed (or loss of) access to key habitat, increased travel distances and energetic costs."

It says that Agnico Eagle would need the "highest possible standards of mitigation" to manage this, but it is not convinced that's what's being proposed.

Agnico Eagle has said it will use mobile protection measures, which means the mine will cease or reduce operations if caribou are detected in the area. (Courtesy Daniel Taukie)

The company has said it will use mobile protection measures, which means instead of set seasonal shutdowns, the mine will cease or reduce operations if caribou are detected in the area.

"The ability to implement it effectively to reduce impacts on caribou, whilst maintaining a logistically and economically viable mine operation, is unproven and thus represents a significant risk," the government said.

The company has also suggested a "convoy" mitigation technique to send groups of vehicles out together, in order to give caribou longer periods to cross the road.

The Lorillard and Wager Bay herds of caribou have the most potential to be affected by the Whale Tail pit project, but the government and KIA said data on the herds is limited because few are collared. Now, the KIA is calling on the government to complete its caribou strategy framework from 2010 within the next two years so decisions like these can be more informed in the future.

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