Nunavut regulatory org says no to Baffinland
Expanded shipping, and ice-breaking, contravenes land use plan: NPC
The Nunavut Planning Commission has chosen to protect Arctic ice — and all it delivers and represents to the people and animals of Nunavut — over industrial development.
In a bold move announced April 8 that will impact how Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. operates its Mary River iron mine in north Baffin, NPC directors have decided unanimously that the mining company’s amended project proposal does not conform to the North Baffin Regional Land Use Plan (NBRLUP).
This is the first time the NPC has ever issued a non-conformity decision.
“Ice is an essential part of life in the North. For people, for polar bears, for seals and other animals in the North, ice is a bridge — both metaphorically to the past and present Inuit values and activities, also actually as a fact,” their decision states.
“Ice physically links Inuit to their culture and values.”
While commissioners also recognize the need to balance “other modern economic values and development,” it nonetheless decided that Baffinland’s new plan, to break ice and ship ore from Milne Inlet nearly year-round, is incompatible with land use regulations.
“The proposed ice breaking activity for winter shipping would prevent or prohibit wildlife harvesting and traditional activities,” the NPC decision states.
It’s interesting to note that the land use plan was recently amended to allow for transportation corridors, including a marine route from Milne Inlet through Eclipse Sound to Baffin Bay.
That amendment was made to allow Baffinland to ship ore past Pond Inlet and into Baffin Bay during the open water season under its “early revenue phase,” said Hunter Tootoo, chair of the NPC, in an April 9 interview.
But not when there’s sea ice, Tootoo said.
“What the phase II proposal was looking at doing was approximately 150 ship transits right from Milne Inlet, through Eclipse Sound, right past Pond Inlet out to Baffin Bay with ice breaking,” Tootoo said.
Under the land use plan, that area is protected for Inuit to harvest and travel, he said.
“It wasn’t an easy decision,” Tootoo said. “A lot of hours and a lot of work went into this decision. It’s not something that was done over night.”
Greg Missal, Baffinland vice-president, corporate affairs, said April 9, on the phone from head office in Oakville, Ont., that the company was disappointed.
“We felt that our application did conform to the land use plan, which is why we were pursuing that,” Missal said. “The NPC came up with their determination and thankfully, they clearly outlined a number of options for us to move forward to work with them.”
Those options, as listed by Tootoo, in an April 8 letter, include:
• continuing with its “early revenue phase,” which involves shipping ore out of Milne Inlet during open water;
• applying to the appropriate federal minister for an exemption from the NBRLUP;
• amending the project proposal to comply with the NBRLUP;
• applying to the planning commission to amend the NBRLUP; or
• re-evaluating the project proposal.
“We’re still reviewing it and considering our options but obviously in the coming days, we’ll be selecting one of those options and pursuing it very quickly,” Missal said.
Baffinland is keen to develop a mine site full of high-grade iron ore about 160 km south of Pond Inlet and has been trying for years to do so amidst corporate changes, fluctuating iron prices and global demand, and with a project plan that continues to expand and contract as a result.
They currently have approval for the project’s $750-million “early revenue phase” and have been moving forward with that, even as they attempt to broaden the shipping season.
Missal said the company hopes to have the dock and ship-loader infrastructure completed for the open water season that starts around July.
Trucks transport ore daily down the tote road from Mary River to the Milne Inlet dock site, he added, so that when summer comes, stockpiled ore can be readily shipped out.
And despite flagging world markets and the very time-consuming and expensive regulatory process currently underway, Missal said the company still intends to push this forward.
“There’s no question that market prices are down in the mineral resource sector at the moment and it makes it very challenging for companies to contemplate an investment when prices are low,” he said.
But that’s for Baffinland’s parent companies to worry about, he said.
“Our focus is to get this project built and up and running and there’s been a great deal of work put in by many people to get it to the stage it’s at today.”
The Qikiqtani Inuit Association said in an April 8 news release they look forward to reviewing the NPC’s decision.
“QIA will continue to engage Inuit in the Mary River Project, focusing its efforts on the implementation of the Mary River Inuit Impact and Benefit Agreement,” the QIA said in the news release. “Starting next week, QIA is conducting the Baffin Inuit Labour Understanding and Gap Analysis survey in Iqaluit.”
The NPC is the gateway body through which any development project must pass in order to proceed.
A project proposal submitted to the Nunavut Impact Review Board is sent to the NPC first for a land use conformity decision.
Nunavut has two working plans at present: the North Baffin Regional Land Use Plan and the Keewatin Regional Land Use Plan.
The commission has spent years developing a draft Nunavut Land Use Plan but it still requires a final round of consultations and is therefore not yet in force.
Baffinland currently employs about 600 people at Mary River though only half may be on site at any given time given shift rotations. Of those, Missal said 200 are Inuit, employed directly or through contractors.