Baffinland mine ramps up production, ships record amount, minor spills also increase

Baffinland mine ramps up production, ships record amount, minor spills also increase

In its third shipping season, which ended on Monday, Baffinland's Mary River iron mine shipped a record amount of 4.1 million tonnes of iron ore.

This is up from 2.7 million tonnes shipped last year and just below its permitted maximum capacity of 4.2 million tonnes.

According to a press release, this volume is the largest ever shipped out of Canada's High Arctic.

Fifty-six trips by cargo ships, each carrying an average of 72,600 tonnes of iron ore, left the Milne Inlet port, near Pond Inlet, Nunavut, and travelled to Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan.

The 75-day shipping season saw no health, safety, or environmental incidents, according to the release.

Change in spill reporting

However, the mine did see the number of minor spills almost double over the previous year, and while most were treated sewage and greywater, there were a few thousand litres of raw sewage spilled and several hundred litres of fuel.

Last year the mine reported 14 spills, so far this year it has reported 37, but only 26 were of more than a zero volume.

Todd Burlingame, Baffinland's vice-president of sustainable development, attributes the increase and the spills with zero volume to a change in how the mine reports spills.

The changes occurred after Mary River received a reprimand concerning the Fisheries Act, after too much sediment was found in the water downstream from the mine.

He says after that, the mine responded quickly, educating the staff on spill reporting.

"If there's any question — report, we don't want to be in a situation where people are guessing is this reportable or not, so I would rather be guilty of over reporting than underreporting," he said.

He says the reporting is also informing how they move forward, indicating where to invest in new infrastructure and equipment.

Expansion plans

The mine has been working for several years towards getting an operational expansion approved by regulators.

As part of this, one of the things it is looking to do is replace the road connecting the mine to Milne Inlet port with a railway, which it says will reduce dust, and thus sediment in the water.

The mine has also applied to up its shipping allowance from the 4.2 million to 12 million tonnes of ore. However it has reduced its ask regarding how many months of the year it would break ice to accomplish this. 

The general increase in production also plays a part in the increased spills, Burlingame said.

"With more activity, there will be more of those incidents, I think rather than looking year over year, what might be an interesting comparison is the size of the operation versus the number of spills.

"When you look at the amount of equipment going up and down the tote road and the mining equipment, etc., that's an awful lot of moving parts, and it's no excuse but it's going to happen. There are going to be spills, and that's why there are processes in place.

"Right now, no measurable toxic effluent has been measured in any of the fish bearing or receiving bodies of water."