Mary River plan: massive ships, 12 months a year
“The Steensby Port option is the only economically viable alternative” for Nunavut iron mine
By 2016, a fleet of 10 giant-sized, $175-million ice-class ore ships may be crashing through the ice, year-round, in the waters off Baffin Island and Hudson Strait.
If the proposed Mary River iron mine on northern Baffin Island moves ahead, ships, about 15 times larger than normal vessels used for eastern Arctic sealifts, will transport 18 million tonnes of iron ore a year from a port at Steensby Inlet across the North Atlantic.
Of the 204 trips in and out, 180 will take place from November to June when there’s ice to deal with. These ships will arrive every second day, with each arrival scheduled to coincide with the completion of loading of the previous ship.
Another three million tonnes of ore a year will be shipped out in 40 smaller ships through Milne Inlet during its ice-free period from mid-July to mid-October.
How this marine traffic — the likes of which have never been seen before in the eastern Arctic — will play out is described at length in the draft environmental impact statement for the construction of the entire $4-billion Mary River mine.
The draft EIS went to the Nunavut Impact Review Board this past January when Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. owned the mine site, which has since been taken over by the steel-making giant ArcelorMittal.
The document says Steensby Inlet was selected as the preferred deepwater port location based on its ice conditions for marine shipping and the ease of running a railway to the port from the mine site.
The length of the ore carriers — 329 metres — also means they would be too large to manoeuvre within narrow Milne Inlet, the draft EIS says.
Moreover, there were “Inuit concerns” about a shipping route from Milne Inlet to Pond Inlet in winter because this could interrupt important floe edge activities. That’s why the project proposal considers only open water shipping to Milne Inlet, the document says. Suggestions to build ship in and out of Iqaluit, 1000 kilometres to the south, were logistically impossible, it says.
As for shipping only during the ice-free season, that’s out.
“The viability of the Project depends on the ability to provide smelters with ore 12 months a year. Shipping 12 months of the year is the only commercially viable alternative. As a result, the Steensby Port option is the only economically viable alternative,” says the draft EIS.
“The Project would not be commercially competitive with iron ore suppliers in Brazil with only an open water shipping season.”
To do this year-round shipping, ArcelorMittal must respect regulations under the Canada Shipping Act and the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.
But “no permit is require to authorize shipping,” said Matthew Picard, the mine project’s director of environment, health, safety and sustainabiity, at last week’s Nunavut Mining Symposium in Iqaluit.
The Mary River promoters will need a permit for the proposed 150-km railway from the mine site to the port as well as approval for the overall project and the port infrastructure needed for shipping, Picard said.
The $1-billion Steensby Port will include a freight dock, a two-berth ore loading dock with handling and loading facilities, a rail car dumper and equipment, an explosives storage and preparation facilities, tank farm, 22MW power plant and a locomotive maintenance shop.
Fednav, a Canadian shipowner and operator, will manage shipping operations, forming a consortium of ship owners to design, finance, build, and own the ships that will be used to carry the iron ore from the project to markets in Europe, the draft EIS says.
Although the ships will be huge, the shipping route to Steensby Inlet does not pass in full view of a community, so the ships will not be visible to communities, only to hunters.
When they’re sailing, the powerful ships will maintain a constant course and speed whenever possible — and that’s a problem, which the draft EIS tries to respond to.
But most of these plans aren’t found in the executive summary, which is the only part of the 5,000-page, 10-volume draft EIS translated into Inukitut.
For example, there’s a plan to keep hunters from running into the open track that the ships’ passage will leave in the ice.
From November through June, low air temperatures will result in the formation of ice within the ship track, which will grow larger and larger throughout the winter.
In sections of the ship track passing through land-fast ice — where snowmobiles could pass — reflective highway markers will be used and placed along the ship track’s outer edge, about 500 metres clear of the actual ships.
Weekly patrols will be carried out to ensure the markers are operational and to observe for any signs of travel or other usage in the area of the ship’s track, says the draft EIS.
Public notices will also advise communities and travellers of the installation and removal of the markers, their general location and colour coding.
The increased ship traffic may also effect wildlife and fish, causing:
• Habitat change from icebreaking and the docks;
• Disturbance from underwater noise due to construction, shipping, and aircraft overflights;
• Hearing impairment and-or damage caused by noise from construction activities and shipping;
• Masking of environmental sounds caused by vessel and construction noise; and,
• Mortality from collisions with ships.
Hunters have said they’re worried about how noise-sensitive marine mammals will cope.
Aerial surveys over Milne Inlet and Eclipse Sound during the open-water season can document narwhal response to ore carriers, the draft EIS suggests — but not until the construction of the mine is already in progress.
An on-board “Inuit advisor” may also monitor and report on the ship performance with regard to environmental matters, says the draft EIS.
Overall, “the response of marine wildlife to vessel transits is predicted to be not significant,” says the draft EIS.
Bowhead whales are expected to avoid ships.
Seals will lose an estimated 136 square km of landfast ice, used by seals to whelp their pups, but the EIS says this is a relatively small proportion of landfast ice habitat available to seals along and near the shipping route.
However, “it is likely that at least some individual walruses will be affected multiple times by icebreaking during the course of a single ice-covered season.”
The draft EIS says that with mitigation measures in place, disturbance effects on walruses from construction, shipping, and aircraft overflights would be of “low magnitude.”
“With mitigation measures in place, no mortality is expected, and therefore, residual effects on walruses are negligible.”
During consultations for the project, it was noted that shipping might frighten belugas, too.
“With mitigation measures in place, no mortality is expected, and therefore, residual effects are negligible.”
As for birds, “there is a small potential for planned shipping activities to interact with marine birds either directly (e.g. through collisions) or indirectly (e.g. through habitat alteration or contaminant discharge).”
“An unplanned event such as an oil spill could result in mortalities and, depending on time of year and location, these effects could be severe,” the draft EIS says.
The project will have “no significant adverse residual effects” on Arctic char in Milne and Steensby Inlets, it says.
Residents of Igloolik, Hall Beach, Coral Harbour, Cape Dorset, Kimmirut, Iqaluit, Clyde River, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Resolute and Grise Fiord have a chance to learn more about the project during NIRB public information meetings scheduled for this month and next.
The first meeting takes place April 9 and 10 in Igloolik.