Danger of Russian rocket debris downplayed by officials, but Arctic locals fear it
'What if something goes wrong?' asks Marty Kuluguqtuq of Grise Fiord, Nunavut
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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