Say yes to Mary River railway amendment, Nunavut commission recommends
Ottawa, NTI, GN must now decide whether to accept NPC’s recommendation
The Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s long-sought-after expansion plan for the Mary River iron mine, centred on what would become Canada’s first High Arctic railway, appears to be picking up steam.
A land use plan amendment that would allow a railway to run between Mary River and Milne Inlet with open-water-only marine transport through Eclipse Sound to Baffin Bay should be approved, the Nunavut Planning Commission said last month.
But that doesn’t mean that the Mary River phase-two expansion plan, which the Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. first proposed in October 2014, is ready to be handed over to the Nunavut Impact Review Board for a long-awaited environmental assessment.
That’s because the federal government, the Government of Nunavut and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. must first accept the commission’s recommendation, which would amend the North Baffin Regional Land Use Plan.
Until that happens, a three-and-a-half-year-old regulatory logjam that’s kept the project stuck inside the planning commission won’t be broken.
The planning commission’s recommendations, backed by an 80-page report that follows a public hearing in Pond Inlet last fall and the perusal of 120 documents, included the following:
• Called the “Mary River Transportation Corridor,” the first part of it would be designated as a 100-kilometre-long, 10-kilometre-wide land corridor between Mary River and Milne Inlet. Inside this corridor, a railway and any necessary infrastructure would be allowed, along with a tote road.
• The second part is a 270-kilometre marine corridor that runs east of Milne Inlet to Baffin Bay. There, Baffinland is permitted to operate ships—only during the open water season—and install navigational aids, refueling stations and other related infrastructure.
• Marine shipping through sea ice will not be permitted in the marine segment of the transportation corridor.
• The Mary River transportation corridor may be used by any person for road, rail and open water shipping and includes activities proposed by Baffinland to service the Mary River site and transport iron ore.
• Inuit would be allowed to use areas within the transport corridor for hunting, fishing, camping and any other traditional activity.
In its report, the commission recommended that the NIRB’s environmental assessment of the phase-two project take a close look at the railway’s potential impacts on caribou, dust generation and on travel by hunters via snowmobile or dog team.
The commission also recommended that all the relevant agencies work together to determine if special protected areas for caribou are required, a request that could be handled in a separate application to amend the North Baffin Regional Land Use Plan.
Late last year, a committee of Pond Inlet residents set up by the Pond Inlet hamlet council issued a statement denouncing the railway scheme and declaring that the proposal “may be dead in its tracks.”
That’s because they believe the railway would damage migrating groups of caribou and make it difficult for hunters and land travellers to get from one side of the railway embankment to the other.
The Pond Inlet group also said the company has not achieved promised Inuit employment levels at the Mary River mine.
Baffinland’s phase-two expansion proposal has changed several times since 2014. For example, a proposal for through-the-ice winter shipping is now off the table.
But if approved, the current version of the proposal would allow the company to produce and ship up to 12 million tonnes of ore per year, up from the 4.2 million tonnes they are now allowed to ship annually.
Baffinland’s CEO, Brian Penney, told a business audience in Ottawa this past February that if the mine’s expansion is permitted, they will never again have to worry about fluctuating global iron ore prices.
The railway would replace the company’s existing fleet of haul trucks with five locomotive engines and 176 rail cars, which would transport ore to an expanded port at Milne Inlet.
Under the Nunavut Agreement, as well as a recently passed federal law called the Nunavut Project Planning and Assessment Act, or “NuPPA,” a development project must first go to the planning commission to determine if the project conforms to land use rules.
Right now, no Nunavut-wide land use plan exists and the NPC’s draft Nunavut Land Use Plan is still bogged down in a lengthy negotiation process marked by continued wrangling over proposed restrictions on development within Inuit-owned lands.
But the North Baffin Regional Land Use Plan, created by the federal government in the 1980s and 1990s, still has legal force.
That North Baffin plan must be amended to allow a railway before the NPC can declare that the proposal conforms to the land use plan, a declaration that allows it to get an environmental assessment from the NIRB.
In a statement, the Qikiqtani Inuit Association reminded beneficiaries that the planning commission’s recommendation does not mean that the railway project is approved.
“As always, QIA is interested to ensure that the rights and perspectives of the communities affected by the Mary River Project are represented and considered,” the QIA said.