Huge iron road to turn Baffin into Nunavut’s industrial hub
Mary River railroad: two tunnels, 24 bridges, 300 culverts
A plan to construct Canada’s most northerly railway is underway near the top of Baffin Island — one that would bring the explosions and rumbling sounds of industry, along with thousands of workers — to a place known more for snow, caribou and char.
The railway’s trains, pulled by two locomotives, will be powered by diesel — but the drive towards its construction will be fueled by a growing demand for high grade iron ore, something that the Mary River iron deposit near Pond Inlet posseses in great quantity: at least 365 million tonnes’ worth.
There, the mining giant ArcelorMittal, which recently acquired the Mary River iron mine project from Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., wants to build a 150-kilometre railway from its mine site to Steensby Inlet to ship between 18 and 21 million tonnes of iron ore a year to markets in Europe and beyond.
The four-year construction of the railway could start as soon as 2012 if the project gets through the environmental review, hearings and permitting processes — and if the price of iron remains high.
Building the railway for the Mary River project will require great feats of engineering, stamina, $1.9 billion, and many workers.
The company delivered its draft environmental statement for the construction of the entire $4 billion mine site to the Nunavut Impact Review Board this past January.
According to this 10-volume report, three diesel trains, comprising two locomotives and between 110 and 130 ore cars, will each make at least two round trips per day between Steensby Inlet and Mary River.
The railway will run in as straight and smooth a path as possible on embankments built up to four metres high, designed to let caribou pass in high or steep locations.
The railway will require 24 bridges, seven greater than 100 metres in length with two tunnels and 300 culvert crossings postitioned so char can pass through them.
The railway will pass through two tunnels, whose construction will involve a large amount of drilling and blasting through solid rock.
Runoff from tunnel construction will contain some brine, residues, and “fugitive petroleum products.”
An access road will also run within the railway’s right-of-way. At eight to 12 metres wide, the road will be able to to accommodate trucks of up to 100 tonnes capacity.
The train is expected to operate 300 days per year, says the draft EIS, “so seasonal stoppages are possible if large groups of migratory caribou return to the area.”
Graded snow banks along railway and roadway will allow caribou to “easily cross the transportation corridor without being blocked by steep snow banks,” the draft EIS says.
Railway construction crews will live in four camps: at the Ravn River area at km 35, where there will be a 200-person camp, at the Mid-Rail area at km 55 where there will be another 200-person camp, Cockburn Lake tunnels area at km 105 where there will be a 100-person camp, and Cockburn South Camp at km 125 where there will be a 400-person camp.
Railway operating conditions will not be significantly different than those in northern Quebec, where the old Quebec North Shore and Labrador Railway served Schefferville, says the draft EIS, and “experience from railway operations in other northern locations has been incorporated into the design.”
“What is different is the duration of the coldest period. Schefferville’s extremely cold weather lasts for 6 to 7 weeks at most whereas the extreme cold in central Baffin Island lasts for six months. This will be demanding of the operating and maintenance crews but will be ameliorated to a large extent by the relatively rapid rotation of crews in and out of the project site,” says the draft EIS.
The Alaskan Railway, the Canadian line to Churchill on Hudson Bay, some of the most northerly lines in Scandinavia, and China’s Tibet railway all deal with permafrost, the document says.
They operate in predominantly warm permafrost, which presents problems that are not typical of the conditions between the Mine Site and Steensby Port, it says.
The railway is being designed by Canarail Consultants Inc. of Montreal.
As well, there will be quarries and temporary airstrips needed to position the large railway construction workforce, equipment fleet and fuel.
But this is just a plan so far.
To build the railway ArcelorMittal needs a separate a “certificate of fitness,” to become a railway operator permit, from the Canadian Transportation Agency, which will participate in the NIRB review process.
As for the number of people needed to build the railway, along with port and mine, they will need a lot of workers: the construction workforce will range in size from 3,000 to 5,700, dropping to 1,000 during the mine’s 33-year life from construction to cleanup.
The project will have a “significant positive effect on the economy of the region and Nunavut,” says the draft EIS.
The project will produce iron ore worth about $23 billion and pay more than $2.8 billion in profits and taxes to the Government of Nunavut over 21 years, it says.
And more than $1.9 billion in royalties will flow to Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. over this same period.
The amount of money spent on labour is expected to tally up at $1.7 billion.
“The project will not result in significant adverse residual effects to the people and environment,” says the company told the NIRB when it deposited the draft EIS in late January.
Having the mine and associated shipping, road, and railway infrastructure in place will facilitate future development in the region.
Residents of the Igloolik, Hall Beach, Coral Harbour, Cape Dorset, Kimmirut, Iqaluit, Clyde River, Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Resolute and Grise Fiord will have a chance to learn more about the project this month and next during NIRB public information meetings.
The first meeting takes place April 9 and 10 in Igloolik.