Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. will release a year and a half's worth of melted snow and rain water collecting in a catchment pond at its mine outside of Rankin Inlet into Meliadine Lake this summer.
If it doesn't, Agnico Eagle says the pond at the Meliadine gold deposit will reach capacity and overflow just from the spring thaw. The company usually releases that water more regularly but had to stop last year when the levels of dust and minerals collected in the water rose above what the mine was permitted to let go.
But as of May 12, the mine got an emergency amendment to its water licence, and can gradually release that water into the lake between now and the end of October.
Canada's Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal approved a request by the mine for an emergency amendment that it filed with the water board in March.
Mine promises water is safe for the lake
There are 650,000 cubic metres of water in the catchment pond right now, said Agnico Eagle's Frederic Langevin, general manager at Meliadine. He said that amounts to around a year and a half's worth of snow melt and rain water, but added that last year had a heavy rain season.
This is almost as much as the catchment pond can hold, he said, and the mine expects the spring melt to bring in 450,000 cubic metres of water.
Studies done by Agnico Eagle and presented to the Nunavut Water Board show that the water will not harm the marine environment, according to the mine.
"Even at much higher concentrations [of dissolved solids], that water was found to be non-toxic," he said. "It's not going to be causing a problem for fish or fish habitats."
Langevin said there was confusion online and with residents about the type of water being discharged.
The company has another application with the Nunavut Impact Review Board where it is looking to release treated saline groundwater from within the mine. These projects are separate.
Emergency overrides need for community hearing
But many residents use Meliadine Lake for drinking water, and so the community has reservations, says Rankin Inlet Mayor Harry Towtongie.
"My main concern is that community consultation wasn't done on this," he said. "I know that there was an emergency, but still. I feel that we should have been consulted sooner and in a timely manner where we know what's going on at all times about our lakes and rivers."
Towtongie said it's unlike Agnico Eagle to make this kind of move without talking to the community.
"When you're thinking that this water has been used and contaminated, it's hard to sell to a community that's been using it for hundreds of years," he said.
"Whether it's dust from the mine that we see all the time, a couple of miles downwind, we're not sure, we're just concerned."
The mine said it wasn't able to hold consultations this time because of COVID-19, and that the water board's process for an emergency amendment only requires a comment period, and not formal community consultations.
The water board did hold a technical meeting over teleconference with the Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA), Environment and Climate Change Canada, and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs.
In April, KIA objected to seeing the entire catchment pond emptied and to the small window of time given for public comment.
"It is KIA's position that processing of applications on an emergency basis should be rare and reserved for serious environmental circumstances of urgent public concern that outweigh the public's right to notice and a hearing," the regional Inuit organization said then in a statement.
In its decision to approve the amendment, the water board said it shares concerns over the lack of community input and it is asking Agnico Eagle to communicate regularly with the community this summer.
The water board said if the situation is not dealt with immediately it could cause harm to people, the environment and to the mine's infrastructure — a containment pond and dike used to corral the water.
This is a one-time amendment, and the water board is working to find a more permanent solution to amending Agnico Eagle's water licence for the future.