Agnico Eagle tries to ease caribou protection measures for Nunavut mine
Company faces pushback from Baker Lake hunters, Environment Department and Kivalliq Inuit Association
Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. is trying to loosen caribou protection measures that it says have proven too costly to operations at its Whale Tail gold mine.
But the move has drawn criticism from the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization, the Kivalliq Inuit Association and the Government of Nunavut’s Department of Environment, who all say that the company has got ahead of itself by rewriting caribou protection guidelines without the support of other members on an advisory group.
And without this support, these organizations assert in recent correspondence with the Nunavut Impact Review Board that the changed guidelines run afoul of the terms and conditions of the company’s project certificate. The impact review board has yet to weigh in on the matter.
The controversy started on April 22, when Agnico Eagle distributed a new terrestrial ecosystem management plan for its Whale Tail operations.
The new plan includes considerably larger thresholds for the number of caribou that need to be spotted near the mine site or haul road before precautions are taken. During spring migrations, the new threshold is 75 caribou, up from 12. For the fall migrations, this threshold is 1,000, up from 110. For the summer, it’s 300, up from 25.
Whale Tail, which is located about 150 kilometres north of Baker Lake, isn’t a standalone mine. Instead, ore from the deposit is hauled 65 kilometres to the company’s Meadowbank site for milling.
Whale Tail’s operations started in August 2019. For the rest of that year, Agnico Eagle says that its haul road was closed for 60 days due to caribou protection measures. In its new plan, the company says that closures for that long are “unsustainable for mining operations.”
Agnico Eagle says that research generally shows that caribou that venture near roads and traffic continue their migrations no later than usual. It also says the initial thresholds “provided a considerably greater level of protection for caribou than was intended.”
And the company says it’s within its rights to change its caribou protection measures, in collaboration with a terrestrial advisory group, or TAG.
But many of these assertions are now being disputed.
The Baker Lake HTO responded to the changes with dismay.
On April 30, the HTO wrote to the impact review board, the territorial government and the Kivalliq Inuit Association to raise its concerns about the new caribou protection measures, asserting that the changes were made without the involvement of the terrestrial advisory group, and asking whether this is allowed.
“After the final hearing for the Whale Tail expansion project in 2019, the HTO was under the impression that these major changes would only be made with full participation of the TAG.”
Nunavut’s Department of Environment and the Kivalliq Inuit Association both later wrote to the impact review board to say they believe the company hasn’t properly consulted with the advisory group, and that this is at odds with the terms and conditions of the project certificate.
In a May 22 letter to the impact review board, the Environment Department also warns that it expects the new caribou protection measures to be “largely ineffective.”
It says the research that underpins the company’s assertions that caribou protection measures can be safely loosened is a “draft analysis” with “several significant deficiencies” and that most advisory group members “indicated that they did not support the study’s conclusions.”
While the previous caribou protection plan included data on observed caribou group sizes from 2007 to 2018, the new plan includes data only from 2019. The Environment Department says this “leaves a large degree of uncertainty” and creates “several methodological concerns about potential bias in this data set that have not been addressed.”
The Environment Department says that it asked Agnico Eagle to revise its data analysis to address these problems, but the company “refused to undertake the requested analyses.”
One rationale offered by Agnico Eagle for changing the caribou protection measures is that it had only accounted for 28 days of road closures when Whale Tail was initially permitted. That may be so, says the Environment Department, but there was never an approved annual limit on road closure days for the project. It has asked the impact review board for clarity on the matter.
The Department of Environment agrees that the company’s plan to loosen caribou protections was raised with the advisory group twice, in November 2019 and April 2020. But it also says the company has not followed the process the department expected and didn’t properly consult the advisory group about many of the changes it has made.
The advisory group is composed of members from Agnico Eagle, Nunavut’s Department of Environment, the Kivalliq Inuit Association and the Baker Lake HTO.
Changes to the caribou protection plan are supposed to be in line with advice from the advisory group. That group is supposed to try to reach decisions by consensus. When that’s not possible, issues will be resolved by a majority vote by members of a review committee.
But the advisory group never reached consensus on the company’s new caribou protection plans, and the review committee has not considered the new caribou thresholds.
The Environment Department says these rules are all baked into the terms and conditions of the Whale Tail project certificate. It has proposed that the company fall back on the previous set of caribou protection measures until agreement can be reached at the advisory group on new ones.
The Kivalliq Inuit Association reached similar conclusions, which are outlined in a letter to the impact review board on May 21.
Like the Department of Environment, the KIA says it never saw a draft of the new caribou protection measures before they were released.
The KIA says it’s “disappointed not to have been directly involved” in the creation of the new rules.
It says “more collaboration and transparency are required” to successfully make changes to the caribou protection plan and “ensure that all relevant parties have been consulted and are in agreement.”
And the organization said it “wishes to stress the importance of local caribou to Kivalliqmiut Inuit” and that it “believes that all parties wish to reduce the risk of impacts occurring to Kivalliq caribou.”