Hunters fear expedition's sunken truck is contaminating hunting grounds near Taloyoak, Nunavut
Expedition not committed to recovering truck, but said it's 'very likely'
The manager of the hunters and trappers group in Taloyoak, Nunavut, says a truck sunk by an Arctic expedition in one of his community's prime hunting grounds feels like a "stab in the back."
"We live off the land. We're not farmers. We're hunters and gatherers, and we need our game to be clean," said Jimmy Oleekatalik. "We want it cleaned out as quickly as possible."
The Transglobal Car Expedition, with crew members from Iceland, Ukraine, Russia, Canada and the U.S., lost a modified Ford F-150 through the ice northwest of Taloyoak on March 23. The incident happened after the expedition successfully travelled overland from Yellowknife, N.W.T. to Resolute Bay, Nunavut, while part of the team was making its way back to Cambridge Bay.
Now, the vehicle rests on the ocean floor in between the Tasmania Islands.
Oleekatalik and Joe Ashevak, chairperson of the Spence Bay Hunters and Trappers Association, said the area — 240 kilometres northwest of Taloyoak — is one through which beluga whales, narwhals, seals, walruses and Arctic char are known to migrate.
"It's going to harm the wildlife, one way or the other," said Ashevak.
According to a report phoned into a 24-hour spill line that serves both Nunavut and the N.W.T., the truck contained 40 litres of fuel, other fluid and a back-up generator.
Ashevak said people in Taloyoak and Gjoa Haven, a community further south, are "not happy" about what happened. They're worried fuel and lubricants are going to leak from the vehicle and contaminate a food chain that's integral to their way of life.
The expedition told CBC News the truck's fuel tank appears to be intact and a closed system containing antifreeze would need to be damaged in order for liquid to leak.
Ashevak pointed out, however, the vehicle is not far from the surface of the water and it's "bound" to be struck by icebergs come spring and summer.
Andrew Dumbrille, an independent shipping consultant, said any type of ocean spill is "very destructive." He's an advisor to the Clean Arctic Alliance, and used to be a lead specialist on marine shipping and conservation at the World Wildlife Fund-Canada.
"Oils and lubricants and petrol and diesel, they bioaccumulate in the environment, they don't disappear, they don't go away," he said. "They build up in fatty tissues in marine mammals or fish … and from there, it affects human health."
Loss of truck was avoidable
Contamination concerns aren't the only reason why Oleekatalik and Ashevak say their communities are upset. Oleekatalik said the Tasmania Islands are "very dangerous" this time of year because of the fast flowing current of water below the ice.
Had the expedition consulted with people in Taloyoak, they say the incident could have been avoided altogether.
"We could have at least advised them of areas where there's fast water and open polynyas or places where it's dangerous to travel," said Ashevak. "You could at least tell them that some areas of [the] ocean is unsafe for heavy vehicles to travel on."
On the journey north, the expedition said the ice had been 50 centimetres thick among the islands. When the truck sank in the same area five days later, they said they were shocked to discover it was only 15 centimetres thick.
"They should have consulted with us," said Oleekatalik, adding the community would have been "happy" to provide a guide. "This is our hunting ground. This is our livelihood. This is what we know."
'We're very sorry'
Emil Grimsson, an Icelandic member of the expedition tasked with evaluating whether the truck can be recovered, said the team is "very sorry" about what happened.
Without committing to it entirely, Grimsson said it was "very likely" they'd recover the vehicle. He expects to have a decision by the end of May, after assessing the risks, the costs, and what kind of permits are needed.
"We're not going to do anything until the ice is gone," he said.
A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), the lead agency on the spill report, told CBC News in an email they're not involved with the actual retrieval of the vehicle. The spokesperson said CIRNAC's responsibility is to uphold Canadian laws — in this case, the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act — and to make sure necessary containment and clean-up measures were in place.
CIRNAC could also fine the expedition.
"It is still in the early stages of the investigation to determine if penalties will be applied. Any form of the enforcement will be assessed and reassessed at a later date," the spokesperson said.
The Nunavut Impact Review Board carries out impact assessments for activities and developments in Nunavut. Its executive director, Karen Costello, said the expedition did not require an assessment because it didn't involve archaeological research, water use or wildlife sampling.
An example of a disaster
The expedition was a month-long pre-run for an overland trip around the world — and it made headlines when its crew flew into Yellowknife on a Russian charter plane at the start of March.
Transport Canada fined a Russian passenger who chartered the aircraft, the plane's two pilots, and the aircraft operator. The aircraft broke airspace regulations imposed in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Grimsson said there were plans for better consultation and research while in Yellowknife, but the team had been distracted by the unexpected challenges.
"We could have done better," he said. "The thing we need to do is learn, we need to know who to talk to."
Grimsson also reckons the amount of liquid that could leak from the vehicle over the span of a few years would be "less than a litre" and community members' concerns about the environment might be "a bit overestimated."
Oleekatalik said the incident, however, is a "prime example of a disaster."
"This [is] really upsetting the whole community, the whole region."