Environmental scrutiny of Meadowbank mine begins

Cumberland files draft environmental impact statement

By JIM BELL

The Kivalliq region’s Meadowbank gold mine project entered a new stage this month, when Cumberland Resources Ltd. of Vancouver declared that their draft environmental impact statement, or “EIS,” is now in the hands of the Nunavut Impact Review Board.

For residents of Baker Lake and other Kivalliq communities, it means they will get a chance to attend public hearings, ask questions and get more information about how the mine might affect the environment.

For Cumberland Resources, it means they may now start guiding their proposal through a maze of bureaucratic processes that will lead to the various permits, licences and other approvals they will need to build and operate their $350-million gold mine, about 70 km north of Baker Lake.

The company is now at least two years behind the aggressive schedule they set for themselves in 2003.

At that time, they predicted the Meadowbank mine would get all its permits by April 2004, enter construction by March 2005, and produce gold bars by December 2006. But they’re still predicting that when it does start up, the mine will last for 12 to 14 years, and produce at least three million ounces of gold.

The company plans to extract ore from three open pits, which will overlap with areas now covered by small lakes. To gain access to the ore that sits beneath those lakes, Cumberland will build dikes, remove the fish, then drain the lakes.

They’ll likely use a mixture of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil to blast ore out of the three open pits. That easy-to-mix combination is often used by terrorists, such as the car bomb that Timothy McVey used in the Oklahoma City bombing, so the company will have to use special handling and storage methods for its ammonium nitrate stockpiles.

The biggest open pit, called “Portage,” would form a huge, oval-shaped gash in the earth: about two kilometres long, 200 to 400 metres wide, and 175 metres deep. Nearby, a smaller, rounder pit called “Goose Island” would be about 150 metres in diameter and 150 metres deep.

The third open pit, called “Vault,” is projected to be 900 metres long, 600 metres wide and 185 metres deep, and would sit about 5 km north of the other two.

An on-site mill and processing plant will crush ore into small pieces so that pure gold can be extracted from it, and then melted into gold bars. Cumberland will ship the gold to market on Boeing 737 aircraft that will land and take off from an on-site jet airstrip.

To help extract every last ounce of gold, Cumberland will treat some of the ore with cyanide, a deadly poison. The company says it will take steps to ensure that none of the cyanide escapes into the ecosystem.

To supply the mine, the company will use a barge landing facility and storage area several kilometres east of Baker Lake. The storage area would hold fuel tanks and other supplies, which would be transported to the mine along a haulage road.

Stephanie Briscoe, the executive director of the Nunavut Impact Review Board, said various stakeholders will examine Cumberland’s EIS to ensure that it conforms to the board’s guidelines, and then look at it to ensure that the environmental impact statement contains enough information.

She said the board has tentatively scheduled a round of technical “pre-hearings” for the week of May 9, in Baker Lake, Chesterfield Inlet and Rankin Inlet.

After getting comments from various stakeholders, including territorial and federal government agencies, the company will be expected to produce a final EIS. After that document is produced, the board will be able to schedule public hearings, possibly as early as the fall, Briscoe said.

The company has yet to complete an Inuit impact and benefits agreement with the Kivalliq Inuit Association, and the mine may not go ahead until they sign one.

Company officials say they will soon release another vital document that they’ll need to persuade investors to give them money to build their mine: a feasibility study. Last year, Cumberland was forced to revise its plans after prices for fuel and construction materials began to rise sharply.

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