Draft EIS for Nunavut’s Mary River mine sparks stinging technical review
"It is flawed"
CAMBRIDGE BAY— Debate continues over the fast-tracked transformation of an iron-rich mountain in Nunavut’s northern Baffin Island into a pile of cars for Asia, billions of dollars for its owners and thousands of jobs in Nunavut.
Inuit know the Mary River mountain as Nuluyait, or buttocks, because its shape resembles a woman’s bottom.
But there’s nothing smooth about the comments tabled Oct. 5 for the Nunavut Impact Review Board’s technical review of Baffinland’s Mary River project.
Over the coming months, Baffinland, a private company now under the control of ArcelorMittal, the European steel-making giant, and a private investment firm, Iron Ore Holdings LP, will have to respond to this harsh scrutiny of its draft environmental impact statement.
Technical review comments, delivered to the NIRB office in Cambridge Bay for an Oct. 5 deadline, slammed the draft EIS for the north Baffin project on many points, honing in on perceived shortfalls and specific technical omissions.
By far, the most critical and detailed comments received, now posted on the NIRB website, come from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association, which presented several lengthy documents.
The QIA says the draft EIS was too technical, requiring the QIA to do the job that Baffinland should have done to help Inuit in the communities affected by the project understand the breadth of the plans and the potential impacts.
Communication by Baffinland was not “extensive or consistent,” the organization representing Inuit in the Baffin region said, leading to “tensions.”
“This can be overcome,” the QIA said.
As for the draft EIS itself, the QIA said the starting point for its review of the 5,000-page set of documents “is that it is flawed, with limited or lacking baseline information,” with poor predictions on impacts and a lack of detailed monitoring and management programs.
The QIA said it “simply cannot accept” that there will be “no negative impacts of any significance from a project of this magnitude either to the environment or Inuit.”
“A $4.1 billion project in an Arctic environment, consisting of a 145-km railway, a port site, year-round regular shipping with tankers larger than anything ever seen in the North and a workforce averaging 4,200 people during construction is a major event for the region,” the QIA stated.
When the mine’s four-year construction period starts, as early as 2012 if the project passes the environmental review and permitting process, the total number of jobs in the Baffin region would increase by nearly 70 per cent.
During its 33-lifespan, from start to finish, 30 per cent more jobs are forecast for the region.
All that will have impacts, said the QIA.
“While Inuit accept the need for improving access to a wage and cash economy, the D[raft] EIS dos not fully appreciate the continuing relationship between harvesting and on-the-land activities with cultural identity,” the QIA said.
On the environmental side, the QIA said the draft EIS doesn’t take into effect the impact of blasting on water quality, how to deal with oil spills, the transboundary impacts of the project and the full range of its possible impacts of migratory birds, caribou and other wildlife.
“From QIA’s perspective the alternative analysis contained within the DEIS specific to rail route and port-site location was entirely inadequate.”
Archeologist Sylvie LeBlanc at Carleton University said Steensby Inlet should be protected at all costs, because it’s home to “exceptional historical, cultural and anthropological value,” such as an ancient wolf trap, “a testimony to remarkable Inuit engineering.”
Near the area under consideration for the port, there’s also a large navigational and directional system marking out the route to Steensby Inlet, known as Ikpikitturjuak Bay in Inuktitut.
The route is marked by an “uninterrupted alignment of inuksuit,” numbering nearly 100, she said.
The antiquity of some archeological remains along this navigational system, which goes back more than 4,500 years, indicates that “it has been used by people representing every Arctic culture for millennia.”
“To this day, this is the longest intact navigational system ever documented. Navigational systems are ancient and no longer in use or even part of Inuit’s distant history, often beyond oral memory and certainly beyond the limits of the ethnographic and historical record,” Leblanc said. “They are cultural properties that need to be identified, documented, preserved, conserved and rehabilitated.”
As well, Leblanc said the draft EIS makes no mention of protecting a group of willows near the inlet, which a vegetation study for the draft EIS earmarked for protection.
A similar example of tall willows also occurs in Katannilik Territorial Park, 1,000 km to the south of Baffin Island near Kimmirut, she said, and is “even there considered a noteworthy feature of this park.”
“The sheer size of the willows in this particular example of shoreline shrub is unique on the Mary River Project if not for all of North Baffin, and is therefore considered noteworthy and worthy of preservation,” she noted.
Other comments to NIRB’s technical review include concerns from Parks Canada about the project’s impact on parks users’ experience because, for example, ships could interfere with sea-kayaking excursions from visitors to Sirmilik National Park near Pond Inlet.
Environment Canada said “one overarching theme was the general lack of information” on the existing or baseline environment, both on land and sea — a criticism also taken up by the Government of Nunavut.
“This general lack of knowledge” may limit the accuracy of impact assessments and the development of effective mitigation measures, the GN said, also citing “a lack of commitment to mitigation measures and monitoring.”
The GN also appeared to be miffed because the draft EIS discounted “the role of the GN in considering the planning, mitigation partnerships, or monitoring of the project.”
Health Canada’s comments focus on the lack of discussion in the draft EIS about contamination to country foods.
And Transport Canada worries about the lack of planning for search and rescue “given the limited availability of Canadian Coast Guard.”
Natural Resources Canada comments look at the impacts caused by the railway — which would be subject to its own environmental review — on permafrost.
Now that the questions are all out on the table, Baffinland will prepare its answers, which will be contained in its Final EIS.
Commenters will meet Oct. 18 to 20 in Iqaluit for a technical meeting and then again Nov. 6 to 7 and in Igloolik and Nov. 9 to 10 in Pond Inlet for pre-hearing conference on the project.