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Arctic mega mining -- a better future for Baffin Island?

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Green Arctic meadow on northern Baffin Island. Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr

A huge iron ore development at Mary River on northern Baffin Island is about to change an ancient landscape. Baffinland Mary River is majority owned by ArcelorMittal, which was ranked 70th on the Fortune Global 500 largest corporations in 2012.

The project consists of a massive iron ore deposit at Mary River, which the Inuit of the region call Nuluuyaat, a landmark that has been used for generations to guide travel through North Baffin Island.

The deposit was discovered in the 1960s but left undeveloped until now because it was considered too remote and costly. However, the rapidly changing Arctic climate has changed the equation. The Mary River project will produce 18 million tonnes of ore per year, pure enough that no milling (and thus no tailings ponds) will be required on site. Instead, the ore will be shipped by a 150 kilometre-long railway to a new port being constructed at Steensby Inlet. It is the first railway built in Canada in generations; and it's the first time such a project has been attempted on permafrost.

The stakes are huge. The mine, railway, ports and other infrastructure will cost more than $4 billion to construct. The Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) held two weeks of public hearings into the project at the end of July. It's not the first time the project has been discussed, but the hearings did little to lay to rest long-standing environmental and social concerns about the long-term effects of the project.

The path to Steensby Inlet is marked by a chain of inuksuit, the stone markers Inuit use to guide them across their land and which form part of the peoples' cultural heritage. Some of these inuksuit have been in place for 4,500 years, making them about as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The train will pass through this area.

The mine will be supplied by Milne Port, north near Pond Inlet, an Inuit community of about 1,300, along a road constructed for the purpose. The ore will be loaded into icebreaking carriers and hauled to Europe to be made into steel to feed a growing global demand driven by the rapid development of China, India and other Asian nations. A ship will leave Steensby Port every two days for 30 years. The company's Environmental Impact Statement suggests that other deposits could extend the mine life beyond this point. Some observers have said the mine could be in business for 100 years.

NIRB is one of the co-management bodies established under the 1993 Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. Its mandate is to use "both traditional knowledge and recognized scientific methods" to "assess the biophysical and socio-economic impact of proposals and ... make recommendations and decisions about which projects may proceed."

Mary River is the latest manifestation of the boom-and-bust cycle of mega-development that has always driven the economy of the Canadian North. For the communities of the North Baffin region, the project will contribute jobs, training, business opportunities and see the development of regional infrastructure. This in a region that has very little wage labour opportunities outside government.

At the same time, the people of the region remain firmly linked to the land which has nurtured their society for thousands of years. The Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) has raised a number of concerns about the project, including the effects of the shipping route through Steensby Inlet into Foxe Basin on marine wildlife, including whales and narwhals that migrate through the area. Other concerns include the effect of the rail line and traffic (a train every two hours) will have on caribou migrations and health. QIA also talked about contamination from fuel or sewage spills in Arctic waters, as well as the need to ensure there will be adequate training, jobs and other benefits.

Madeline Redfern, the Mayor of Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital and a major staging centre for the mine, questioned the ability of her town to absorb the population increase that the mine would create. There are already 300 people a year moving to Iqaluit, she told the hearings. (Given there are only 6,700 people in the town, this is equivalent to a 4.5 per cent annual increase, an extraordinary growth rate that exceeds that of many cities in the developing world.) Other concerns include increased alcohol abuse, domestic violence and other social ills.

Some of the strongest concerns have been raised in Iglulik, the closest community to Steensby Inlet. Well-known filmmaker Zarcharias Kunuk lives in community and is one of the people who has been raising concerns about the long-term effects of the project. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans, QIA and others have pointed to the lack of baseline environmental information in the project area. As one observer at the NIRB hearings in Iglulik put it, so little is known about the environment of Foxe Basin, it is next to impossible to tell what effect the shipping will have. The company has said it will set up joint working groups on marine and terrestrial environment to monitor effects. The working groups would include QIA, the federal and Nunavut governments and the company.

In the meantime, Kunuk and a team of researchers are out on the land with a group of elders to start collecting that information. Kunuk, who produced the Oscar-winning film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner in 2001, told CBC his plans to create a baseline:

"What I want to do is record the wildlife, the land, the beauty of the land.... That's the project we're doing right now -- to record it now, elders who are living now, and do it again in 10 years."

Kunuk has also hired a lawyer to do a human rights analysis of the project. He wants to see Baffinland "entrench human rights in all [its] policies."

NIRB has until the end of September to send its recommendation to John Duncan, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. The Minister then has three months to decide whether to approve the project.

John Crump is a CCPA research associate and writes on Arctic and global environmental issues. This article was first posted on Behind the Numbers.

Photo: Mike Beauregard/Flickr

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