At the outset of the final environmental hearings for an expansion at Nunavut's Mary River Mine, five communities in the territory's northern Qikiqtaaluk region are saying they can't support the project as it is being proposed.
For those communities — especially Pond Inlet, which is nearest to the mine — the primary concern is what impact a new railway and increased shipping from Milne Inlet could have on local wildlife like caribou and narwhal.
The Nunavut Impact Review Board hearings are this week and next week in Pond Inlet and Iqaluit, and can be joined virtually.
If approved, the expansion would see the mine double its current annual production of iron ore to 12 million tonnes.
To move that ore, Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation would build a railway to replace an existing trucking route. To ship the iron ore out of Nunavut, the company says there would be one or two vessels travelling to and from Milne Port each day.
That's around 176 round-trip ore carrier transits each summer, plus support vessels, like tugboats and fuel ships.
Milne Inlet opens into Tasiujaq or Eclipse Sound, a primary habitat for narwhals in Nunavut. It's also located within a national marine conservation area, Tallurutiup Imanga.
"We are not convinced the benefits outweigh the adverse impacts," reads a joint press release sent Monday by the North Baffin Working Group, a collective of hunters and trappers organizations and hamlets of Pond Inlet, Arctic Bay, Clyde River, Igloolik and Sanirajak.
The group said the mining company hasn't "provided enough evidence that it can do the expansion safely," and argues there is still "too much uncertainty" for Inuit to make a decision right now.
"For that reason we decided to unite and back Pond Inlet until they are happy with all the things that are involved in phase two," Clyde River Mayor Jerry Natanine told CBC News. "None of us will go on the side and say, 'oh, we support it, even if Pond doesn't.'"
The Hamlet of Pond Inlet has asked for a gradual increase in production over the coming years.
Don't say you've done enough, QIA tells mine
These are supposed to be the final hearings for the longstanding project. Previous final hearings were adjourned in the fall of 2019 when consensus could not be reached.
Inuit remain "deeply conflicted" about economic development and protecting the land, Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA) president P.J. Akeeagok said on Monday as technical meetings started.
Next week, a community round table will allow the public to make presentations and ask questions.
While the QIA and Baffinland signed a huge benefits contract last summer called the Inuit Certainty Agreement, Akeeagok says environmental disputes from last October are still unresolved.
Akeeagok had this message for the mining company.
"Baffinland, I ask you to be adaptive. I ask you to challenge the depth and the form of your commitments to Inuit," he said. "Don't simply say, you have done enough, and now it is up to the Nunavut Impact Review Board to decide between your position and that of Inuit."
The board of directors for the QIA has yet to say if it will support the expansion.
Baffinland says the railway and production increase are needed to make the mine profitable. If the expansion is approved, president Brian Penney says $2.4 billion in royalties would be paid to Inuit over the life of the mine based on "conservative assumptions about iron ore prices."
That breaks down to about $1 billion for the QIA between 2021 and 2038, he said, and $1.4 billion to Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, a territorial land claim group. He added that, to date, the QIA has been paid $66 million in royalties and land rent by Baffinland.
The mine is already permitted to build a rail and port at Steensby Inlet, a more southern location, from which it could ship up to 18 million tonnes of iron ore each year. But the mine has said that it needs the revenue from the production increase being proposed now to finance an operation at Steensby.
Mine says it has consulted and will keep doing so
In the last five years, Baffinland has has held over 200 community consultation meetings, the mine's manager of northern affairs, Joseph Tigullaraq, told CBC.
"Baffinland has asked, complied and changed with community concerns," he said.
Upon the requests of communities, the mine says it changed the location of its rail line, added caribou crossings in locations approved by Inuit and shortened its shipping season, at a significant financial loss.
Now, the company is offering to fund an Inuit-led and -administered environmental monitoring program that would work independently from the mine's own monitoring projects.
"We want Inuit traditional knowledge to be involved and integrated into the plans we have for this project," Tigullaraq said.
But the Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization and the Hamlet of Pond Inlet say they don't want to plan for environmental mitigation after the project is already started.
They want to know now that building, mining and shipping at that level will not harm community lifestyles that are crucial to food security and cultural autonomy.
"This sudden increase in the amount shipped would not allow for careful monitoring of subtle and important changes to the marine environment and marine mammals," reads a letter from the Hamlet of Sanirajak released before the start of the hearings Monday.
While the mine is a large employer for Sanirajak, the hamlet said it's critical to know if the expansion will "result in the extinguishment of Pond Inlet Inuit's ability to harvest narwhal in Eclipse Sound."
Hearings are scheduled to run until Feb. 6. For members of the public outside of Iqaluit and Pond Inlet, the live proceedings are being broadcast on Uvagut TV.