The welfare of narwhal and other marine life once again arose as a major concern during the resumption of regulatory hearings for the proposed Mary River iron mine phase two expansion in Iqaluit last week.
Narwhal numbers in Eclipse Sound, near Pond Inlet, fell to an estimated 5,018 in 2020, down from 9,931 in 2019, according to consultants who studied the mammals. That compares to 12,039 of the animals in 2016 and 10,489 in 2013. Narwhal are a key source of sustenance for many Pond Inlet residents.
“If that’s not an early-warning indicator that something might be wrong, I don’t know what is,” said Chris Debicki, vice-president of policy development with Oceans North, a registered intervenor and a charitable organization that promotes science- and community-based conservation in Canada’s Arctic and Atlantic regions.
He said Baffinland Iron Mines officials spoke of a virtual “big red button” that communities could push to interrupt mine operations if an emergency arises.
“I think people are scratching their heads when they hear about this big red button and wondering where it is and when they can push it,” Debicki said, referring to the plight of narwhal in the area.
If the company were truly concerned about the environment, it wouldn’t be proposing two railroads and two ports — one at Milne Inlet and one at Steensby Inlet — over the long-term, he added.
“There’s a way to do this responsibly and market this as some of the most environmentally-responsible iron ore in the world. Unfortunately, Baffinland hasn’t chosen to take that path as of yet,” said Debicki.
Baffinland has committed to shortening the shipping season from its original phase two proposal, putting restrictions on vessels during the annual freeze up and break up of ice to lessen the impact of underwater noise on marine mammals and modifying the design of railway embankments to accommodate caribou crossings. The mining company is now proposing to do its shipping between July 15 to Oct. 31, or as late as Nov. 15, if ice conditions permit and the community of Pond Inlet is agreeable. The number of ore carriers will be limited to 168 per year, with a gradual increase to that number over four years.
Baffinland conducts its own narwhal monitoring program and the company identified other possible factors for the recent reduction in the whales present in Eclipse Sound: underwater pile driving to construct a small-craft harbour; an increase of killer whales in the area, which are predatory to narwhal; and heavier than usual ice conditions and related ice breaking.
“It’s important to note that we made the decision to avoid icebreaking for the spring 2021 season as a direct response to Inuit input, and to minimize overlapping our activities with the construction of the craft harbour in Pond Inlet,” said Megan Lord-Hoyle, Baffinland’s vice-president of sustainable development, adding that the number of narwhal in 2019 was stable compared to the Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s surveys in 2013, despite four years of commercial shipping taking place.
“Baffinland recognizes that it’s absolutely essential that our activities have as little impact as possible, and we are committed to working closely with Inuit towards this goal. Since the beginning of the project, the company has implemented extensive monitoring and mitigation measures to ensure there is no significant impacts to the marine environment from its activities and these measures will continue as part of phase two, if it is approved,” Lord-Hoyle stated.
Debicki emphasized that Oceans North is not aiming to see the resource at Mary River go unexploited.
“We are extremely cognizant of the importance of this mineral deposit and are not opposed in any way to its development. Inuit chose that deposit as part of some of the core Inuit-owned land in the negotiation of Nunavut, and for good reason,” he said, noting that the iron is such high grade that it doesn’t require secondary processing and therefore will leave a smaller carbon footprint, if properly developed. “It is clearly the most important mineral resource that we know of in Nunavut. The thing is, it’s not a 10-year resource or a 20-year resource, this is a resource that, properly developed, will provide benefits for hundreds of years. So if there’s some growing pains now and some problems with this particular operator, I think it’s better to resolve them early on.”
He also described it as “really problematic” for Baffinland to promise childcare facilities in some of the communities affected by the mine, but only if phase two is approved.
“First of all, I don’t think it’s within a mine’s core competency to be providing those kind of things,” he said, adding that offering childcare is much more complex than simply constructing a building. “So that’s the kind of thing that just shouldn’t be part of an environmental impact process, and it’s confusing to community members.”
Among the other mining-related benefits that Baffinland is touting are $1.4 billion in royalties paid to Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and $1 billion in royalties going to the Qikiqtani Inuit Association over the life of the mine; $1.5 billion submitted in taxes and fees to the Government of Canada and $679 million in taxes to the Government of Nunavut. The company also has planned construction of a mechanical training garage in Sanirajak; three training complexes in North Baffin communities; and a $10-million training centre in Pond Inlet.
The hearings were scheduled to wrap up on Nov. 6. When the regulatory process is complete, the Nunavut Impact Review Board will forward its recommendation on phase two to the federal minister of Northern Affairs for review.