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Inuit, Baffinland at odds over proposed railway

Inuit in Pond Inlet are standing up against Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.'s plans to build a railway from its Mary River mine to the coast.

The company's bid for an amendment to the North Baffin Land Use Plan met with opposition at the Nunavut Planning Commission's public hearing in Pond Inlet Dec. 4 and 5.

Members of the Pond Inlet, Mary River Phase II Review Committee challenged Baffinland on its proposed 110-km railway from the Mary River mine site to Milne Inlet at the Nunavut Planning Commision's public hearing Dec. 4-5. From left: Fiona Atagutak, Lee Inuarak, Jayko Alooloo, Enookee Inuarak, Paniloo Sanguya, Jaykulasie Killiktee. Absent: Charlie Inuarak, Sam Omik and Kaujak Komangapik.
photo courtesy Pond Inlet, Mary River Phase II Review Committee

"Inuit on the northern tip of Baffin Island have mounted a challenge to Baffinland Iron Mines' proposal for Canada's first Arctic railway," stated a Dec. 20 news release from the Pond Inlet, Mary River Phase 2 Review Committee. "The HTO … and the committee, do not support Baffinland's request to build a railway."

Along with Pond Inlet, impacted communities are Hall Beach, Iglulik, Arctic Bay and Clyde River.

Baffinland wants to build a raised 110-km railway between the mine site and Milne Inlet, and hope to proceed to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) for a full environmental assessment – the highest level of scrutiny for any proposed development project in the territory.

The rail project is estimated at under $1 billion, and Baffinland has, in the past, stated, "it doesn't make sense to truck 12 million tons of ore on a (Milne) tote road."

The company argued that the idea of a railway already passed a conformity review, as the original Mary River Project included a railway south to Steensby Inlet and year-round ice-breaking shipping through Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait. But afterward, due to economic constraints, an Early Revenue Phase plan was approved in 2014, which consists of trucking ore north on a tote road from the mine to Milne Inlet. This included shipping a much smaller quantity of ore than originally proposed during the open water season.


Committee doubts company's intentions

The committee noted rail shipping would mean six to seven trains a day, each one pulling 70 to 80 ore cars loaded with iron ore, making the mining operation three times as big as it is now.

"With the railway delivering greatly increased amounts of ore to port, residents are concerned that it is just a matter of time before the company insists it requires year-round shipping," the committee stated in its news release.

Baffinland had previously sought to ship 12 million tonnes of iron ore during an extended season of 10 months per year using icebreakers that would clear a path off the coast of Pond Inlet. In 2015, the planning commission determined proposed icebreaking would damage traditional sea-ice routes for hunters and established Baffinland's plans did not conform to the land-use plan.

At the time, Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada Minister Bernard Valcourt exempted the Phase 2 proposal from the commission's process related to ice-breaking. The company has since withdrawn those plans.

Baffinland is wants to replace the existing tote road, pictured here, with a 110-km railway from the mine site to Milne Inlet with its Mary River Phase 2 proposal.
photo coutesy Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.

In its written submission, the committee said the railway would be a physical barrier for Inuit and that it could potentially impact habitat and caribou as an endangered species.

"In their proposal for Phase 2, Baffinland failed to describe the dimensions of the railway," stated the committee. "We are concerned that the railway may represent a greater barrier to Inuit travel than the currently used tote road."

Similarly, the committee detailed how caribou and other wildlife might be adversely affected by the raised railway. It noted lack of important detail from Baffinland.

Finally, the committee raised socio-economic concerns.

"Baffinland originally committed to employing Inuit as 25 per cent of its workforce. Opponents pointed out that it is a target never achieved, with only 12 per cent of the workforce being Inuit from North Baffin communities. Residents also warned of social problems, created by any increase in jobs that require them to be away from home two weeks at a time," stated the committee in its news release.


'Considerable confusion and lack of certainty'

In a pre-hearing letter, Baffinland noted that during community engagements with the Hamlet of Pond Inlet and the Mittimatalik HTO "no opposition to include a railway development as an acceptable land use within the existing corridor was raised by the participants."

The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), in its submission, states it's "not possible, based on the consultation record, to determine the adequacy of the information provided to the communities regarding the construction, scale, and operation of the railway component of the PH2 expansion and any proposed safeguards to address community concerns raised."

QIA noted that despite Baffinland's confidence in its positive assertions, independent supporting data was not provided as requested.

Meanwhile, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) indicated that Baffinland provided enough information for the commission's process.

"INAC also notes that the authorizing agencies and departments of the federal government will provide further and more detailed comments regarding the potential environmental and socio-economic impacts of the proposed activities if the proposal advances to the NIRB's impact assessment process," stated regional director general David Rochette.

The NPC's conformity decision is expected in the new year.



Baffinland's railway proposal:

The 110-km railway from the mine site to Milne Inlet would include: the installation of railway embankment and track, comprised of sub-ballast and ballast materials, with ties and steel rails; establishment of bridges and railway sidings at several locations; locomotives, ore rail cars, fuel cars and freight cars; the development of bungalows, or small sheds containing power switching systems; communication towers (estimated up to 15 structures); terminals with ore and freight loading/unloading facilities at the mine site and Milne Port; and a railway maintenance workshop and yard at Milne Port