North

Danger of Russian rocket debris downplayed by officials, but Arctic locals fear it

A Russian rocket stage slated to fall in northern Baffin Bay this weekend is nothing to fear, say Russian and Canadian officials, but that message isn't sitting well with hunters.

'What if something goes wrong?' asks Marty Kuluguqtuq of Grise Fiord, Nunavut

Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, calls the move 'a slap in the face by Russia,' noting the debris will land in an area her organization is working hard to protect. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

A Russian rocket stage slated to fall in northern Baffin Bay this weekend is nothing to fear, say Russian and Canadian officials, but that message isn't sitting well with hunters.

"Our animals come from there," says Marty Kuluguqtuq, senior administrative officer for the tiny hamlet of Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island.

'I think what we really need is for Russia to seek permission — not give notice, however early,' says Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
"It is quite alarming that a foreign object with contaminants might be affecting our way of life, with us literally seeing the thing coming down from the sky."

An international aviation authority has issued a notice warning that debris from a Russian rocket launch is slated to fall Saturday or Sunday into the North Water Polynya (open water surrounded by ice). That's outside Canada's territorial waters but inside an economic zone the country partially controls.

It's also important habitat for seal, beluga, narwhal and walrus, which are hunted by Inuit from Canada and Greenland.

The debris will come from a rocket used to launch a satellite. There are concerns it could contain hydrazine fuel, which is extremely toxic.

Okalik Eegeesiak, chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, calls the move "a slap in the face by Russia," noting the debris will land in an area her organization is working hard to protect. 

"We don't know what the impact will be in the short term or long term on the animals that we depend on," she said.

"How will that impact us later on?"

Russia should seek permission, not give notice

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada spokesman Austin Jean says the department expects "minimal environmental risks," noting that most of the rocket's fuel is expected to burn up before it hits Earth. 

Jean also said the federal department has stressed to Russia the need for more advance notice of similar events.

Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut's minister of community and government services, calls the risk 'very low.' (CBC)
Nunavut Senator Dennis Patterson called for a stronger response.

"I think what we really need is for Russia to seek permission — not give notice, however early," he told CBC News. "And for Canada to stage a recovery team in the Arctic and then pursue the Russians for costs under the Space Liability Convention if not the Arctic Waters Pollution and Prevention Act."  

The Space Liability Convention of 1972 makes states liable for damage caused by space objects.

Public Safety Canada has said its Government Operations Centre will monitor the launch closely.

The Russian Embassy in Ottawa downplayed the risk. Environmental concerns were "seriously taken into account," according to press secretary Kirill Kalinin.

What if it lands on ice?

Joe Savikataaq, Nunavut's minister of community and government services, also seemed unworried. In the Nunavut Legislature Thursday, he said he'd been told the "overall risk associated with this event is very low."

Isaac Shooyook, the MLA for Quttiktuq, says the current in the polynya is strong, and that people may not be safe if contaminants sink to the bottom. (Courtesy Isaac Shooyook)
"There is a high level of control on determining the impact zone," he said. "If, by any chance, debris should fall on land, there will be a co-ordinated effort to notify the public of any potential danger and to recover the debris."

That didn't sit well with two members of the legislature who represent constituents in Nunavut's High Arctic.

In Inuktitut, Tununiq MLA Joe Enook asked why he had to learn about the rocket debris on The National. He also said the debris could be even more dangerous if it lands on ice — adding that ice conditions are changing daily.

Isaac Shooyook, the MLA for Quttiktuq, also spoke in Inuktitut, saying the current in the polynya is strong, and that people may not be safe if contaminants sink to the bottom.  

'Why take the risk?'

Paul Crowley with the World Wildlife Fund in Iqaluit called the North Water Polynya "the most productive polynya in the Arctic."

'Why take the risk?' asks Paul Crowley, the director of WWF-Canada's Arctic program. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)
"These are test events. These are not something that is always fully under control," he said. "Why take the risk?" he said. "Baffin Bay is not an empty wasteland. It's a place that Inuit have lived around and use."

As for Kuluguqtuq, it's now a matter of wait and see.

"Some people in town are looking up to the sky on this coming weekend, looking for Russian objects that might hurt us in the future, if not now," he said.

"What if something goes wrong?"

With files from Jane Sponagle

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