Baffinland owns Canada’s northernmost mine. Now Greenland has a say in its expansion plans

A proposal to double production at the Mary River iron ore mine is currently under review and Canada says our Arctic neighbour has a right to weigh in

The Government of Canada has affirmed Greenland’s right to take part in the environmental assessment of an iron ore mine expansion project that could see a railroad built on Baffin Island and ship traffic increase in the Canadian Arctic and beyond.

Greenland’s concerns hinge on how the expansion of the Mary River Mine could impact wildlife — narwhals, in particular — a concern also raised by subsistence hunters and community members in Nunavut as Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. seeks to increase production. 

Baffinland opened the Mary River Mine on north Baffin Island in 2014 — the northernmost mine in Canada. The company is now looking to double its capacity under a second phase of development, which is under review by the Nunavut Impact Review Board. 

Mary River Mine, on Baffin Island, Nunavut. Map: Google Maps

That assessment process has seen various technical meetings and public hearings throughout 2019, which included Inuit organizations, hunters and trappers organizations, communities,  federal and territorial government departments and environmental groups.

The Kingdom of Denmark also requested a say in the process, on behalf of its autonomous territory of Greenland, in a letter submitted to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada in February. The foreign government argued its rights to consult on the project under a United Nations treaty to which both Canada and Denmark are signatories.

In a letter posted to the review board’s registry on June 25, the agency confirmed the Espoo Convention — signed in 1991, laying out consultation obligations for development projects that pose transboundary impacts — applies to Baffinland’s proposed expansion project.

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In the letter, Tara Frezza, director of intergovernmental affairs at the agency, calls on the review board to alert the Government of Denmark to “the likely significant adverse transboundary impacts, including impacts on marine mammals, accidents and malfunctions, invasive species and any mitigation measures and alternatives being considered.” 

She added that Denmark must be informed of any possible transboundary impacts of the expansion project and be consulted on their significance. 

Karen Costello, the executive director of the review board, told The Narwhal all information from interested parties will be considered in the review process — and confirmed Greenland is an interested party. 

“We will look forward to whatever their concerns are,” she said.

Baffinland Iron Mines’ expansion plans for Mary River

Baffinland is currently permitted to ship six million tonnes of iron ore from its port on Milne Inlet, just west of the community of Pond Inlet, located on Eclipse Sound. Baffinland wants to ratchet production up to 12 million tonnes of iron ore per year, and to construct a 110-kilometre railway to move that ore from mine to port (it currently uses a tote road for that purpose).

Under phase two, Baffinland is proposing 176 voyages for ore carriers, between July and November each year. Baffinland has also requested that its production be capped by the maximum number of ship voyages, as well as a limit on train trips, rather than the actual 12-million-tonne figure, to allow for flexibility. 

As reported by The Narwhal in October, the company appears to be telling investors a different story than regulators, claiming to the former it will increase capacity to 18 million tonnes.

A Baffinland spokesperson declined to comment. 

What are Greenland’s concerns about the Mary River Mine? 

Ore-laden ships travel from Mary River’s Milne Inlet port through Eclipse Sound to Baffin Bay, along the west coast of Greenland, to reach Europe where the ore is transported to market. 

Increased traffic on the route raises concerns for Greenland because ships will travel through sensitive marine mammal habitat, including that of narwhal. 

“Overall, the transportation of the iron ore in the Mary River project must be considered one of the greatest threats to marine mammals in the Arctic,” says a memo from Greenland’s Directorate for the Environment and Nature, included in Denmark’s February letter to Canada, adding that there are risks of oil spills and collisions with whales.

Mads Peter Heide Jørgensen and Fernando Ugarte, the memo’s authors, state that Eclipse Sound, which Milne Inlet opens into, is home to 10 per cent of the world’s population of narwhal, which are “incredibly noise-sensitive.” 

“Most of their food intake takes place during winter in the dense but moving ice pack at depths of between 1,000 and 2,000 metres,” the memo says. “These are areas that are known to be very quiet, and precisely the silence is something that the narwhals rely on when hunting fish at great depths.” 

If Baffinland’s proposed plan goes ahead, noise created by ships could permanently prevent  narwhal from feeding in the area, the memo says.

Narwhal. Photo: Baffinland

Narwhals are almost entirely dependent on auditory cues for communication, navigation and accessing food. As a result, they’ve been identified as the Arctic marine mammal most threatened by Arctic shipping.

“We’re talking about an animal that has lived in relative isolation from the effects of industrial development and they’re now going to be exposed to potentially regular shipping,” Brandon Laforest, a senior specialist in Arctic species and ecosystems for WWF-Canada, told The Narwhal last year. 

For a whole variety of reasons, narwhals have been identified as the most susceptible Arctic marine mammal to climate change.

“They have a very limited range, they have a very low genetic diversity and very specific food habits that are passed down through generations. And they also rely on sea ice,” Laforest said.

Greenland’s memo also noted that ice-breaking and ship traffic could affect the habitat of seals, walruses and whales, noting that bowhead whales are just returning to the area after virtually disappearing for 100 years.

Where is the process at now?

The November public hearing about the expansion project ground to a halt two days early — and with only a fraction of the agenda covered — after Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., the land claims representative for Nunavut Inuit, motioned to adjourn, seeing too many unanswered questions. Meetings were rescheduled for March, and then put on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic limiting both travel and public gatherings.

Costello said information on the process moving forward, such as timelines, will be sent to all parties involved later this month. 

This could signal a possible reboot of the beleaguered assessment process for Mary River phase two — one that has now gained international attention and participation.

Once the process is complete, the review board will issue a recommendation to the federal government on whether or not to allow the expansion project to go forward.

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Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

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