North

Marine life, mineral disputes remain as Nunavut mine hearings resume

Ten months after an abrupt adjournment, the Nunavut Impact Review Board is reconvening its meetings to assess an expansion at the Mary River mine in the northern Qikiqtaaluk region. 

Inuit community leaders claim Baffinland wants to triple instead of double iron ore output

Megan Lord-Hoyle is vice president of sustainable development for Baffinland Iron Mine's Corporation. Technical meetings for an expansion at Mary River are starting Sept. 14. (Beth Brown/CBC )

Ten months after an abrupt adjournment, discussions on the expansion of a mine on Baffin Island is set to resume.

The Nunavut Impact Review Board is reconvening its meetings to assess an expansion at the Mary River Mine in the northern Qikiqtaaluk region in Nunavut.

The mine is about 176 kilometres southwest of Pond Inlet. It's one of the most northern mines in the world, according to the Baffinland website.

Its northern shipping route runs through a habitat of one of the largest global populations of narwhal. The mine is also adjacent to a national marine conservation area, Tallurutiup Imanga. Ships will have to enter and exit the conservation area to reach the port.

The company proposed plans for a production increase from its current allowable 6 million tonnes annually to 12 million tonnes. That will include a rail way built from the mine site to a port in Milne Inlet to replace a trucking road, and a substantial increase in ship transits in and out of Milne Inlet.

But five Baffin communities impacted by the mine had previously raised concerns about these plans.

Some areas on the agenda include the impacts that more shipping could have on marine mammals, how a railway to Milne Inlet could affect caribou and birds and what changes an expansion could cause to community ways of life. 

The meetings are set to start Monday and run through to Friday, Sept. 18, with the environmental regulatory board to host technical meetings via teleconference with impacted communities, Inuit organizations, government groups and non-governmental organizations, and Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation.  

English and Inuktut will be interpreted simultaneously over the phone. 

Conflicts from the last hearing are coming back  

Disputes that led to the November 2019 adjournment of final meetings for the expansion were mostly around the impacts increased shipping would have on marine life like narwhal, and, over the amount of iron ore the mine plans to ship over the long term. 

The proposed expansion says it would see production double at Mary River, from six million to 12 million tonnes of iron ore shipped out annually.

But last week, on Sept. 4, the North Baffin Group said in a letter to the review board that they have reason to believe the company wants to ship triple the amount — up to 18 million tonnes of iron ore from Milne Inlet. The group is made up of hamlets and hunters organizations in Pond Inlet, Sanirajak, Clyde River, Arctic Bay and Igloolik.

The group's concern is based on documents from a mine shareholder, ArcelorMittal, filed with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission that state.

"The initial plan of Phase 3 to increase production capacity to 12 million tonnes per year has been further increased on December 13, 2019 to 18 million tonnes per annum," it reads in part.

Baffinland refers to the expansion as 'Phase 2', so the community leaders say they are confused as to what 'Phase 3' is, since the project description in the documents matches the scope of work for the Milne Inlet rail and shipping expansion. 

The group says it has been a long concern that Baffinland has not been transparent about its true intentions for the Mary River project, as it says the company has significantly modified the project multiple times. 

"We are concerned that higher production rates could mean more environmental impacts and a shorter lifespan for the project. In short, worse negative impacts with fewer economic benefits, or a shorter time span during which those benefits are realized," the leaders wrote. 

Concerns about the 18 million tonne increase were raised at the previous hearing. The mining company says it would have to begin a new application with the review board to go above its initial amount. 

"Baffinland is constantly planning optimizations of the project including looking at the feasibility of an 18 million tonnes per annum scenario through the North, but that is not what is before the NIRB for approval at this time," the company said in a statement. 

Hunters say that narwhal are already being negatively impacted by shipping out of Mary River. The mine says impacts are not serious and it is monitoring wildlife and taking precautions. (Paul Nicklen/WWF)

Expect to hear a lot about narwhal

It's the second time in recent weeks that communities are calling out the mine in advance of these expansion meetings. 

In another letter to the Nunavut Impact Review Board, the community leaders contested an agreement signed in June between Baffinland and their regional Qikiqtani Inuit Association. 

The Inuit Certainty Agreement agreement puts millions of dollars toward daycares, increases royalty percentages for Inuit and promises milestone payments when the company does well. It also gives what the parties called unprecedented environmental oversight to Inuit. 

But hunters say they are seeing already that there are fewer seals, and narwhal are not breeding nor socialize or stay long in one area. 

"It's not that we don't want the mine, it's that they aren't taking us seriously and the environment impacts and all the impacts that are happening," said Eric Ootoovak, chairperson for the Mittimatalik HTO. "They don't seem to care about that, they care about the community and how much they are spending."

Other residents, primarily from Clyde River and Sanirajak, filed letters to the review board in favour of the mine, because it creates jobs. 

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association has yet to comment on community reaction to the Inuit Certainty Agreement, but a version of the legal agreement circulated among communities states that the Inuit organization will support the mine expansion to the review board and the federal government, if there is community support for the Inuit Certainty Agreement. 

In a statement, Baffinland said it has reduced shipping speeds to nine knots, which is below government regulations, and in 2019 created 7,500 hours of training and employment in marine monitoring for residents in Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay and Igloolik. 

"No evidence has been observed of large-scale avoidance behaviour, displacement effects, or abandonment of the summering grounds (consistent with high severity responses), which might in turn result in a population or stock-level consequence," the mine said.  

No public hearing planned yet

These technical meetings are just the start. A final public hearing has yet to be scheduled. 

The mine says hearing delays past 2020 will increase its risk of "experiencing catastrophic damages," and challenge the financial confidence of investors. 

More meetings are set for Sept. 28 to Oct. 1 to finish with any outstanding concerns and discuss what needs to happen at a final hearing.

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