By Vicki Sahanatien, Senior Officer, Government and Community Relations, Arctic
One of the most important environmental impact assessment decisions for Nunavut was issued on Friday, September 14th. Late last week, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) released its final hearing report on the Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation Mary River Project Proposal. The Mary River proposal is for an open pit iron ore mine on located on north Baffin Island, Nunavut. NIRB considered the potential effects of developing and operating the mine, all associated infrastructure and transportation of the ore to markets.
Transportation of the ore was the most challenging environmental issue. Concerns about the potential impacts of transporting the iron ore from north Baffin Island to European markets were expressed by individuals, communities, Inuit Organizations, federal and territorial government departments and WWF-Canada during the technical (2011) and final (2012) hearings. The ore will first travel by rail from the inland mine site to the purpose built Steensby Inlet port, then by massive ships through Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait to the Atlantic Ocean. The Mary River mine life expectancy is 21 years.
The size of the ore carriers proposed (with a capacity six times the size of the MV Arctic, currently the main ship doing year-round shipping in the Canadian Arctic) and the intensity of traffic (with over 200 ship transits per year) and potential effects of the year round shipping activities on the marine environment and marine wildlife species are unprecedented in Nunavut and the Canadian Arctic.
(C) Martin von Mirbach, WWF-Canada
The final hearing report repeatedly recognized the pristine qualities of north Baffin Island and the marine environments of Foxe Basin and Hudson Strait. Further, given the high level of uncertainty in the evaluations of potential and cumulative project effects and the information gaps in the baseline ecological database, NIRB recommended that the project proceed based on the precautionary approach, with extensive ecosystem monitoring put in place. NIRB listened to the concerns raised by communities, government departments and WWF in regards to the environmental and socio-economic impacts by recommending 184 terms and conditions with its project approval.
It is now in the hands of the Honourable John Duncan, Federal Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada. Based on Section 12 of the Nunavut Land Claim Agreement it is the Minister’s responsibility to review the NIRB final hearing report and make the final decision (see section 12.5.7). Will the Minister agree to the terms and conditions NIRB has recommended? Nunavummiut and WWF-Canada will watch for the Minister’s final decision, as should all Canadians, as his decision will set the bar for environmentally responsible development in the Canadian Arctic.