Western Nunavut gold project’s greatest impact could be on caribou

Final hearing for Sabina Gold and Silver Corp.’s Back River proposal underway in Cambridge Bay


Matthew Pickard presents Sabina's Back River gold mine project April 25 at a Nunavut Impact Review Board hearing in Cambridge Bay's Luke Novoligak community hall. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

Matthew Pickard presents Sabina’s Back River gold mine project April 25 at a Nunavut Impact Review Board hearing in Cambridge Bay’s Luke Novoligak community hall. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This map shows the location of Sabina's proposed Back River gold mine. (FILE IMAGE)

This map shows the location of Sabina’s proposed Back River gold mine. (FILE IMAGE)

CAMBRIDGE BAY — The health of caribou: that’s what a positive recommendation from the Nunavut Impact Review Board on the Sabina Gold and Silver Corp.’s Back River gold mine project in western Nunavut could depend on.

Sabina’s scaled-down gold mining project, known as Hannigayok in Inuinnaqtun, is under environmental scrutiny at the final environmental hearing taking place before the NIRB in Cambridge Bay April 25 to April 30.

There would be no overlap with caribou during “sensitive” periods, Matthew Pickard, Sabina’s vice president for the environment and sustainability, said April 25.

But the Beverly caribou herd would migrate near the mine during the summer and fall. For this herd, mild habitat loss and disruption would be expected, along with a possible reduction in reproductivity, he said.

The Beverly herd lost half its population between 1994 and 2011, while numbers of the Bathurst caribou herd are in free-fall, according to a 2015 survey, which said this herd, half-a-million strong 30 years ago, may now have shrunk to as few as 20,000 animals.

During its April 25 presentation, Sabina presented many monitoring programs and 12 actions designed to reduce impacts on caribou. The actions include shutting down mining activities if caribou come close to the mining complex.

Participants gathered at the Luke Novoligak community hall to listen to Sabina including representatives from the governments of Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and Canada, as well as organizations that include the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Yellowknive Dene First Nation.

Sabina plans to build open pit and underground mines at its Goose property, located 400 kilometres south of Cambridge Bay and 520 km north of Yellowknife, which will operate for at least 10 years.

To support Back River, Sabina wants, among other things, to build a 157-km winter road from the Goose site to a marine laydown area at Bathurst Inlet, a smaller version of the now-discarded Bathurst Inlet Port and Road Proposal.

Although a feasibility study last May showed that a large $695-million mine could produce a good return, Sabina said it would be hard to raise that kind of money so it trimmed down the size of the project, removing its George deposit, located closer to caribou grounds.

But discussions April 25 at the NIRB hearing show Sabina still has environmental concerns to overcome if it wants to move ahead with its mine: What happens to the fish that live under frozen ponds underneath the winter road? Will they be affected by the noise of trucks passing overhead twice an hour? And what about the caribou in the Bathurst and Beverly herds?

As for other wildlife, Sabina’s “terrestrial environment” document says there would be “no significant project or cumulative effects” for birds, grizzly bears and muskoxen, although there could be disturbances due to noise, potential loss of habitat, reproduction and vehicle incidents — and at least one wolverine den would have to be relocated.

Sabina, which acquired the project from previous owners in 2009, submitted its project proposal for Back River to the NIRB in June 2012 and a Final Environmental Impact Statement in late 2015.

A year ago the NIRB rejected a request from Sabina to exempt some early development work from the environmental review of the Back River project.

For 2016, only a “small field program,” from $7 to $11 million, is planned.

The future of the project, whose three-year construction would not start until 2017, at the earliest, also depends on getting a water license from the Nunavut Water Board.

On April 26, the NIRB will continue to hear from — and question — Sabina on other aspects of the Back River project and from intervenors including the GN and federal departments.

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