Nunavut Impact Review Board rejects proposed Baffinland expansion in Arctic Canada

The Nunavut Impact Review board has recommended Baffinland’s Phase 2 expansion not be be allowed to proceed. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Final decision will come from federal minister within 90 days

The Nunavut Impact Review board has recommended Baffinland’s Phase 2 expansion not be allowed to proceed.

In a letter to Dan Vandal, the federal northern affairs minister, Nunavut Impact Review Board chair Kaviq Kaluraq said the mine has the potential for “significant adverse ecosystemic effects” on marine mammals, fish, caribou and other wildlife, which in turn could harm Inuit culture, land use and food security.

Kaluraq’s letter also pointed to the potential for “transboundary effects on marine mammals and fish and the marine environment outside of the Nunavut Settlement Area.”

Lastly, she noted those effects “cannot be adequately prevented, mitigated or adaptively managed,” even with the proposed revisions to the project certificated the board has already issued to Baffinland.

The long-awaited recommendation was released on Friday, after a four-year review process that pitted economic development against environmental protections and the sustainability of traditional hunting. The full report is 441 pages.

Baffinland, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and the government of Nunavut all declined interviews until they can review the report.

Company disappointed 

In a news release, Baffinland CEO Brian Penney said the company was disappointed with the decision.

“Our Phase 2 proposal is based on years of in-depth study and detailed scientific analysis, and has considerable local support based on years of consultation with Inuit and local communities,” Penney said.

“We will be asking the federal government to consider all of the evidence and input and to approve the Phase 2 application with fair and reasonable conditions.”

The decision ultimately rests with Vandal, who has previously said he will come to a decision within 90 days of NIRB’s recommendation.

In 2016, when the same board recommended a gold mine in Nunavut’s Kitikmeot region not be allowed to go ahead, then-federal minister Carolyn Bennett rejected that recommendation, asking NIRB to give the project a second chance.

That mine was given approval the following year.

Looking to double iron ore shipments

The Mary River mine has been operating on north Baffin Island since 2015 and is currently allowed to extract and ship up to six million tonnes of ore per year.

Baffinland had requested to double its shipping of iron ore from its Milne Inlet port to 12 million tonnes a year, and build a 110-kilometre railway to the port.

Baffinland also made a myriad of promises to nearby communities in connection with the expansion proceeding, including jobs, money, environmental monitoring programs, boats, daycares, training centres and more.

The company also committed to gradually increasing shipping over four years from when Phase 2 is approved, and banning the use of heavy fuel oil seven years before it’s to be outlawed in Canada’s Arctic.

Many of the commitments are tied to a $1 billion Inuit Certainty Agreement Baffinland signed with the Qikiqtani Inuit Association in 2020, contingent on the expansion proceeding.

Still, QIA chose not to support the expansion, citing a lack of trust among communities, and uncertainty about whether new proposed mitigation measures will actually work with a larger mining operation.

Too many uncertainties remained

In a news release, NIRB further explained some of the considerations on why it chose to reject the proposal, in its longest and most-extensive review ever.

In particular, the board said “despite the best effort of all the parties, the board was not confident that the measures proposed would limit or prevent these negative effects.”

In addition to financial commitments, Baffinland had promised many mitigation measures to address the concerns heard throughout the public hearings, the majority of which were environmental-related.

“The board has concluded that the proposal as assessed cannot be carried out in a manner that will protect the ecosystemic integrity of Nunavut and that will protect and promote the existing and future well-being of the residents and communities of Nunavut, and Canada more generally,” NIRB’s news release read.

The board also listed six areas of uncertainty which had been raised during the public hearings, including whether Baffinland was accurately conveying the effects of the current operation versus what communities were actually experiencing.

NIRB cited testimony from Inuit and community-based organizations which felt Baffinland and regulatory agencies “had not meaningfully considered and applied Inuit knowledge and experience to address this uncertainty.”

The issue of the levels of iron dust around Baffinland and the Milne Inlet port has been a reoccurring concern raised by Inuit. During a February 2021 trip CBC News took to Milne Inlet, the dust was so prevalent it formed red icicles at the base of the snowmobiles. Baffinland has tried to curb the levels dust at the port, and has promised additional dust mitigation measures within the Inuit Certainty Agreement. (Nick Murray/CBC News)

The board also heard how there were gaps between what Inuit were experiencing in terms of the effects of the mine, and how Baffinland was responding to those concerns, if at all.

In particular the board pointed to the issue of dust spread around the mine and the Milne Inlet port, and the changes in narwhal and seal populations along shipping routes since the mine opened.

“Inuit knowledge shared with the board from knowledge holders in Pond Inlet, indicated that these effects are changing their ability/willingness to camp, fish, hunt and berry pick in the areas impacted by red dust and are also changing the timing, location and levels of effort required to harvest narwhals and seals,” the news release read.

“Communities indicated that such changes are threatening food security and creating cultural losses for which communities cannot be compensated. Citing the concerns of communities with regard to these potential negative effects, Inuit organizations and the majority of the community-based Intervenors did not support the proposal.”

Economic impacts

In its news release, the board also acknowledged the loss of economic benefits Phase 2 would have promised, including $2.4 billion in royalties, as well as the potential for the mine’s future to be in jeopardy without the expansion.

“Many residents in the affected communities also expressed the view that the potential positive socio-economic benefits of the proposal focus on financial benefits, while the negative socio-economic effects focus on effects on land use, harvesting, culture and food security that cannot be compensated with money,” NIRB said.

“Due to several factors, including education, training, labour market and demographics, some of which are beyond the control of the proponent, there remains uncertainty regarding whether the full scale of the proposed benefits can be delivered, and questions remain as to the extent of Inuit contracting and Inuit employment that may be delivered by the Phase 2.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Money for northern housing, mining, clean energy among Canada’s federal budget highlights, CBC News

SwedenUN experts call on Sweden to halt mining project on Indigenous Sami land, Mathiew Leiser, Eye on the Arctic

Nick Murray, CBC News

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