The expansion of an iron ore mine in the Arctic that would have increased shipping and led to the “complete extirpation of narwhal” from the region has been blocked.
After four years of consultations and deliberations, the Nunavut Impact Review Board rejected a request from Baffinland Iron Mines Corp asking to significantly increase mining on the northern tip of Baffin Island in Nunavut, Canada. The area is home to one of the world’s richest iron ore deposits, and the densest narwhal population in the world.
The news came as a surprise and a relief to conservationists and community members working to protect the narwhal population and the Inuit who rely on them for subsistence.
“I actually cried,” said Chris Debicki, a vice-president and counsel at the conservation organization Oceans North. “The case against expansion at this moment was too strong and community opposition was too loud.”
The review board issued a statement on Friday saying that the Mary River mine expansion project carried potential for “significant and lasting negative effects on marine mammals, the marine environment, fish, caribou and other terrestrial wildlife, vegetation and freshwater”.
“In the Board’s view, these negative effects could also impact Inuit harvesting, culture, land use and food security,” it said.
Dan Vandal, Canada’s northern affairs minister, can now decide whether to side with the review board or with Baffinland. He is expected to make his decision within the next three months.
Baffinland’s CEO, Brian Penney, said in a brief online statement that the company was “surprised and disappointed” in the review board’s report and recommendations, and that he urged “the federal government to consider all of the evidence and input and to approve the Phase 2 application with fair and reasonable conditions”.
Baffinland is jointly owned by ArcelorMittal and the Houston private equity firm the Energy and Minerals Group.
Its expansion bid sought to increase shipping from the current 6m tonnes of iron ore a year to 12m from its north Baffin Island port at Milne Inlet. It also wanted to build a second railway to another port, from which it intended to ship an additional 18m tonnes.
Current shipping volumes have already had a “devastating” impact on the narwhal population, said Enookie Inuarak, vice-chairperson of the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization.
Narwhals are a type of whale recognizable by the long, spear-like tusk that protrudes from its head. The animal is an important predator in Eclipse Sound and other Arctic waters, as well as a major food source for Inuit in the region.
Inuarak said generations of hunters have relied on narwhal hunting in the summer, when thousands of narwhal typically come to Eclipse Sound. Because narwhal meat is rich in vitamin C, it helps keep community members healthy during the round-the-clock darkness of winter.
Last summer, hunters found barely any narwhals.
“We rely on narwhals for diet, for health and also economically,” Inuarak said, adding that their growing absence from the region “means less of everything”.
Since Baffinland began mining operations at Mary River in 2015, the number of narwhal has precipitously declined, according to Arctic marine biologist Kristin Westdal.
“If you look at the surveys [since 2014]you see this incredible, statistically significant decline in the narwhal population in this area – we see 12,000, 10,000, 5,000, 2,000,” Westdal said.
Because narwhals use underwater echolocation to communicate with each other, the noise and interference from mining transport ships is forcing them out of the area.
Inuarak said Friday’s ruling would lead to celebrations in Pond Inlet, a community near the mine, including a small parade, but he said the threat remains.
The final decision on the future of the mine’s operations rests with the federal government. Many supporters wanted the expansion because it came with promises of royalties and jobs.
But Debicki said the review board’s rejection was significant.
“This iron ore deposit is one of the best in the world because of its high concentration,” he said.
“The reality is that there’ll be mining in this region not for tens of years, but likely for hundreds of years, so it’s super important to get the development right at the outset.”