Company seeks permission to freeze vessel into Milne Inlet

Hunters fear oil spill from Baffinland barge


Hunters from Pond Inlet are unhappy with Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.'s plans to freeze a barge holding millions of litres of fuel into the ice at Milne Inlet next year.

They fear the ice may crack and heave, then upset the barge and create an oil spill in waters frequented by Arctic char, narwhal, beluga and seal.

"That's one of the very, very big worries," said Jayko Alooloo, chair of the Mittamatalik Hunter and Trappers Association.

The company's plans still must be approved by regulators such as the Nunavut Impact Review Board and Transport Canada before it freezes fuel into Milne Inlet in 2009, in order to get an early start to construction in 2010 and effectively shave one year off the building schedule.

Baffinland is considering alternatives. The conventional solution would be to store fuel in enormous 10-million-litre metal fuel tanks.

Such tanks will eventually be necessary, in any event, if the company's plans go forward to build an iron mine at Mary River on north Baffin Island by 2014.

But these tanks are too big to be shipped ready-made to the site, says Baffinland's chief operating officer, Rod Cooper. They would need to be built, a process expected to take two months. And the company only has several months of ice-free weather in the summer to transport supplies. Another year may be lost.

Big metal fuel tanks are also currently in high demand, says company president Gord McCreary, due to work underway in Alberta's oil sands, creating waits as long as a year.

Another solution would be to build a fuel tank farm with collapsible rubber bladders – technology already in use at Baffinland's Milne Inlet camp, where the company has stored about seven million litres of diesel.

But regulators, such as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, don't appear to like fuel bladders, said Cooper, so the company may be forced to switch to other technologies.

As for fuel barges, they're known to occasionally rupture. And, because they're frozen in ice, such spills easily go unnoticed.

Robert Eno, the Government of Nunavut's manager of pollution control, recalls this occurring off Iqaluit in 2000.

Ice froze beneath the barge over the winter. Then, in the spring, the ice melted unevenly, causing the barge to tip to one side, allowing ice to cut through the hull.

Thankfully, Eno said, the Iqaluit spill was detected early, due to regular drilling in the ice to inspect the water beneath.

The spill could have been prevented if the company had used a double-hulled barge, Eno said.

It's too early for Baffinland to say what kind of boat or barge they will use, Cooper said.

Transport Canada is working on developing regulations that would require fuel barges to have double-hulled bottoms, but these rules aren't expected to come into force for another seven years.

The storage of fuel in barges is the biggest concern for hunters, Alooloo said, but it's not the only one.

They also worry that Baffinland's plans to build a 143-km railway, from the mine site at Mary River to Steensby Inlet, northeast of Igloolik, may scare caribou, which are presently scarce across northern Baffin Inlet, but are known to gather in great herds.

Alooloo said he and other hunters fear the constant bustle of trains up and down the railway may scare caribou away, so that they no longer cross from the mainland to Baffin Island.

He said he believes the diminished number of caribou in recent years may have to do with the constant arrival and departure of planes and helicopters at the Mary River site.

But even with these concerns, there's little full-scale opposition to the project among hunters, Alooloo said.

He just wants to ensure Baffinland takes every precaution it can to avoid harming the animals that Pond Inlet residents are accustomed to hunting.

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