Hearing on Mary River expansion to reconvene this January
In-person 12-day gathering to start week of Jan. 25 in Pond Inlet
(Updated on Nov. 3 at 11 a.m.)
Amid a lengthy environmental assessment process marked by distrust and conflict, the Nunavut Impact Review Board has declared it will reconvene an in-person public hearing on Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s controversial railway-based expansion of the Mary River mine early next year, starting the week of Jan. 25.
That news, and much more, is contained in a 117-page pre-hearing decision report the review board released late on Friday.
And it includes a stern warning for hearing participants, asking them to keep their emotions under control.
“Comments intended to denigrate the views or comments of other participants, or simply intended to disrupt the proceedings are not appropriate,” the report said.
The NIRB’s last attempt to hold a public hearing, in the fall of 2019, abruptly ended in chaos on Nov. 6, 2019. Immediately afterward, Baffinland laid off 586 contract workers, 90 of whom were Inuit.
In that 2019 hearing, the review board ran far behind schedule, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. filed a motion to suspend the process, and North Baffin community leaders raised multiple objections to big information gaps in Baffinland’s proposal.
After that, the review board urged the company to work with various stakeholders to find ways to patch up their many differences.
To that end, the pre-hearing report sums up what the review board heard over the past year during a new round of technical meetings and community roundtables, as well as a pre-hearing conference.
North Baffin at odds with QIA
Many community leaders in North Baffin, especially in Pond Inlet, along with World Wildlife Fund Canada and Oceans North, still aren’t satisfied with Baffinland’s proposals.
And a new fault line has emerged—between the Qikiqtani Inuit Association and many of the North Baffin Inuit they’re supposed to represent.
That’s because the QIA and Baffinland negotiated a new deal called the Inuit Certainty Agreement, unveiled last July as an addendum to their Inuit impact and benefit agreement.
Some parts of the ICA are effective as of the date of signing in July, but other parts only kick in if and when the expansion plan is approved by regulators. The deal resolves 12 outstanding technical issues, which means 48 of 53 technical issues the QIA had raised are now resolved. The deal also contains new benefits for North Baffin communities.
But the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization in Pond Inlet does not support the expansion project, the NIRB says.
And many North Baffin representatives appear to distrust their own Inuit association as much as they distrust Baffinland and say QIA didn’t consult them when they negotiated the ICA.
“Throughout the PHC [pre-hearing conference], community representatives expressed serious concerns that the ICA was signed without any consultation or agreement with the affected communities and that the communities do not fully understand its content,” the NIRB’s pre-hearing report says.
Baffinland versus Oceans North
At the same time, a new dispute has broken out between Baffinland and the Oceans North conservation group.
In an acrimonious letter posted on the NIRB’s public registry, Baffinland’s vice-president of sustainable development, Megan Lord-Hoyle, makes a long list of allegations about Oceans North, claiming that at recent meetings the organization’s representatives used “violent language” that create “safety concerns,” and made statements that are “unjustified and disrespectful.”
In a letter of reply, Christopher Debicki, a lawyer who serves as Oceans North’s vice-president of policy development and counsel, said Baffinland’s allegations are without merit and that his organization vehemently denies them.
But despite the continuing rancour, the review board said in its report they believe the various parties have made enough progress on resolving outstanding issues to justify reconvening the public hearing.
In-person plus video link
In their report, the review board said that after restarting the hearing in the week of Jan. 25, they’ve directed that it run for 12 days, Monday through Saturday of each week, until Feb. 6.
The main location for the in-person public meeting will be Pond Inlet and, in spite of COVID-19, community members will be able to attend.
That’s because a Government of Nunavut public health order, issued on Oct. 5, allows institutions of public government, like the NIRB, to hold indoor gatherings of up to 75 per cent of a facility’s fire-rated capacity, to a maximum of 100 people.
At the same time, the review board will set up a video link between Pond Inlet and a site in Iqaluit. They may also set up video links between Pond Inlet and sites in Ottawa and Winnipeg, depending on COVID-19 restrictions in those cities.
The review board says they’ll provide more details, dates and locations later on, when they publish a formal legal notice for the public hearing.
After the public hearing, the NIRB will put together a report for the federal minister of northern affairs that will recommend whether the project should go ahead, with a list of proposed terms and conditions for inclusion in a project certificate.
In its expansion plan, Baffinland proposes a 110-kilometre railway between Mary River and Milne Inlet, up to 176 ship transits per year and annual production of up to 12 million tonnes of ore.
But it’s likely that if their phase two plan is approved, a third phase will follow, with production of up to 18 million tonnes of ore.
And Baffinland still holds permits issued in 2012 that allow them to build a southbound railway and port at Steensby Inlet to ship up to 18 million tonnes of ore through Foxe Basin.
Baffinland has not carried out that Steensby Inlet plan and has said little about when they will.
This article has been updated to reflect that some parts of the ICA are currently in effect. An earlier version of this article said that the ICA only kicks in if and when the expansion plan is approved by regulators.