Baffinland Phase 2 hearings suspended following positive COVID-19 case in Iqaluit

The Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings into Baffinland's Phase 2 expansion have been suspended.

NIRB waiting on public health guidance for when hearings can resume

Day one of the Nunavut Impact Review Board's final public hearings in Iqaluit, Monday April 12. The hearings were suspended on Wednesday following Iqaluit's first confirmed case of COVID-19. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

The Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings into Baffinland's Phase 2 expansion have been suspended.

Nunavut's Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Michael Patterson made the order following Iqaluit's first COVID-19 case on Wednesday.

In an email to parties Wednesday night, the NIRB instructed all participants to isolate in their hotel rooms and await further instructions from health authorities.

In a statement to CBC News, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association said it was in full support of the decision to halt the hearings.

"It is vital we do our part to protect our community from the spread of the virus and ensure everyone's safety," QIA said in an email. 

"We are confident that once this current outbreak has ended we can get back to the important work before us and be confident that Qikiqtani Inuit voices [will be] heard throughout the proceedings."

The long-awaited nine-day hearings were supposed to bring to an end a regulatory process which has been prolonged by delays and extensions. Technical sessions were scheduled to wrap up Thursday, followed by five days of open-floor questions from communities.

The federal government has paid nearly $300,000 for nine groups to attend the proceedings in Iqaluit.

It's unclear what will happen to community members who travelled to Iqaluit for the hearings. However, in its notice, NIRB said its staff will "contact community representatives in their rooms when the board is able to advise of logistics for meals, continued accommodations and changes to travel."

Baffinland relying on hearings to secure financing

The latest delay in proceedings will be another setback for Baffinland, which had hoped to begin gradually ramping up production this summer.

Additionally, on Wednesday morning, lawyers representing the Nuluujaat Land Guardians — a group of Inuit protesters who staged a blockade at Baffinland's airstrip in February — circulated a document it says it obtained in a recent access to information request from the federal government.

The files contained a letter from Baffinland president Brian Penney to Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal from March 2020.

In it, Penney asked Vandal to step in and ensure that the hearings be completed by July 2020 "before the beginning of the next shipping season."

A further delay, Penny wrote, "will initiate a chain of events ... that will put the entire business at risk."

Penney also detailed how completing the NIRB proceedings represented a key milestone for the company, which Baffinland was relying on to secure more than $200 million US in financing.  

"This financing was not contingent on a positive outcome, it required only the completion of the public hearing," Penney wrote.

However, when the NIRB technical meetings in November 2019 were adjourned, unfinished, the financing deals fell apart, "prompting the immediate removal of 586 employment positions from site," Penney said.

Baffinland again had another financing opportunity lined up, according to Penney's letter. This time, for $250 million US. However, that too fell apart when the NIRB delayed technical meetings over the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an email to CBC News, Baffinland wouldn't answer questions on whether the company had another opportunity for financing tied to the latest round of NIRB's proceeding this week, or the previous hearings in January and February in Pond Inlet.

"As we have seen today, COVID-19 continues to add further uncertainty to an already uncertain situation," a spokesperson said. "Baffinland is following all recommendations from Nunavut public health at this time."

It's also unclear when the hearings can resume again, as NIRB staff are waiting on guidance from public health officials.