Baffinland again asks to ship more ore from Nunavut, says jobs are on the line

Baffinland’s port at Milne Inlet, seen here in February 2021. (Nick Murray/CBC)

Federal minister asks review board to prioritize application; Baffinland wants decision by August

Canada’s Northern Affairs minister is urging the Nunavut Impact Review Board to prioritize another request from Baffinland Iron Mines to increase the amount of ore it can ship out from its Mary River mine.

In documents filed with the Nunavut Impact Review Board, Baffinland asked to once again have its ore limit increased to 6 million tonnes, up from 4.2 million tonnes. On top of that, it wants to ship additional ore that it couldn’t transport last year, due to “unexpected circumstances” — including the early formation of sea ice in Milne Inlet.

It’s asking for that increase to last for two years, until the end of 2024. It again says it would have to scale back its operations if it doesn’t get the approval, which would include cutting a “significant” amount of jobs.

The increase is the same amount Baffinland has asked and been approved for in previous years. Last year, it narrowly avoided laying off more than 1,100 employees as it waited to find out if its previous request would be approved.

The company says it has spent more than four months engaging with North Baffin communities and has asked the board to issue its recommendation by August.

On Thursday, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal wrote to the board to say federal ministers felt that timeline would be sufficient, adding they are “sensitive to the concerns raised” about the proposal.

A number of community and Inuit organizations have written letters to the board supporting and opposing the increase.

Concern about jobs

Many of the organizations supporting the approval say they’re concerned about the impact job loss would have on communities.

In its letter of support, the Hamlet of Arctic Bay wrote that many of its residents work at the mine.

“Anything and everything that could result in loss of employment to our residents could cause great economic impact on having local people trained and local people employed,” it wrote.

The Hamlet of Sanirajak wrote a similar letter, noting any risk to jobs would be of “serious concern.” The hamlet also cited Russia’s war in Ukraine and increased demands for steel as reasons to approve the proposal.

“This is certainly not the time to be reducing iron ore production that is required for making badly needed steel,” it wrote.

The Hamlet of Igloolik and the Sanirajak Hunters and Trappers Organization both supported the proposal with conditions, which include studies, consultation and community benefits from Baffinland’s project to build a railroad to Steensby Inlet, which is separate from its Milne Inlet efforts.

The Hamlet of Pond Inlet, the Ikajutit Hunters and Trappers Association in Arctic Bay, and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 793 all wrote letters of support, with the union pointing to the amount of stress last year’s uncertainty caused workers.

The union wrote that many Baffinland employees switched jobs because they couldn’t handle the uncertainty — and that’s led to a shortage of qualified and available workers.

“In Canada’s tight job market, it continues to be challenging to replace the skilled workers that were lost,” the union wrote.

Concern about lasting impacts

Other organizations outright opposed the approval, with some citing long-term impacts from the mine that they say haven’t been properly assessed.

The Hamlet of Clyde River asked for a thorough assessment and public hearing, pointing to “mounting evidence that Baffinland’s ongoing activities are connected to changes in narwhal in Baffin Bay.”

The Mittimatalik Hunters & Trappers Organization in Pond Inlet said the proposal was generally within the scope of previous proposals, but it wants to see a longer-term approach taken to production increases, instead of having them approved for a year or two at a time.

It asked for a number of steps, including a technical review period, a pre-hearing conference and a community roundtable, with a hearing taking place no sooner than October.

“Shipping activities continue to cause significant public concern for Inuit here who are reliant on hunting grounds and mammals found within areas affected by the project,” it wrote.

The Nunavut Impact and Review Board also received letters from Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, both of which called for in-person community roundtables to discuss the proposal.

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association wrote that the constant stream of regulatory requests from Baffinland have been hard on all parties, Baffinland included, and asserted that Baffinland’s approach to assessing cumulative effects has been “fundamentally flawed.”

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., meanwhile, said it needs Baffinland to clarify exactly how much ore was left at the mine last year, and how much extra it would be transporting above 6 million tonnes.

It said it, too, is concerned “that the incremental approach to the development of the Mary River Mine has resulted in cumulative effects not being adequately documented or assessed.”

The Igloolik Hunters and Trappers Organization said it wouldn’t support the proposal because of the short notice, since it hasn’t had time to review it.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Baffinland CEO disappointed by rejection of company’s expansion project, CBC News

Russia: New mining project sets sights on Chukotka in Russia’s eastern Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

April Hudson, CBC News

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