A Nunavut board is being urged to make a prompt decision on whether Baffinland Iron Mines should continue to ship up to six million tonnes ore from its Mary River mine this year.
In a letter to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) on Monday, Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal asks for a recommendation from the board by Aug. 26 — a little more than six weeks away.
"While I am aware of other ongoing assessments before the Board, given the time-sensitive nature of this process, it is imperative that the assessment ... is prioritized and conducted in an efficient and expeditious manner," Vandal wrote.
"This timeline, while ambitious, still allows for maintaining the integrity of the process as envisioned under the Nunavut Agreement and the Act."
Baffinland is asking to continue shipping ore at the same rate as it has in the last few years. In 2018, the company was given temporary approval to up its production from 4.2 million tonnes to six million tonnes, and that approval expired at the end of 2021.
The company wants it extended into 2022, and has threatened mass lay-offs starting at the end of August if it's denied.
"As we have stated previously, without this approval, Baffinland will be forced to drastically reduce our workforce in the fall," said Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman, in an email to CBC on Wednesday.
Minister Vandal rejected an earlier request from Baffinland for an emergency order to produce more ore this year, and instead encouraged the company to go through the NIRB with its proposal.
Now Vandal is urging speed, saying the potential job losses mean the proposal before NIRB "should receive priority over other ongoing review processes."
He suggests forgoing extensive public hearings in favour of written submissions from stakeholders, including local communities and Inuit organizations. Vandal also refers to a suggestion from the Qikiqtani Inuit Association (QIA), for a "hybrid process," involving some oral testimony along with written submissions.
In a letter earlier this month to the NIRB, QIA suggests such oral testimony might be collected "through means such as teleconferences or video conferences upon the request of individual community organizations."
The timeline suggested by Vandal this week is also "fair in the context all parties are working under," QIA president Olayuk Akesuk told CBC News in an email on Thursday.
The spectre of more Baffinland-related hearings may not be a welcome one to some Nunavummiut — a prolonged and sometimes contentious four-year review of the company's proposed expansion plan just wrapped up this year, with the NIRB recommending against that project.
Federal officials are still considering that recommendation and Vandal has said he needs an additional 90 days to issue a decision. His letter to the NIRB on Tuesday suggests that extra time means people can focus on one Baffinland review at a time, and prioritize the immediate production increase and the threat of imminent lay-offs.
That's something QIA pushed for, and Akesuk's email says the minister's actions are "in direct response to QIA's advocacy."
Vandal's letter also tacitly acknowledges that another review of Baffinland's operations at Mary River — this one about the continued production increase in 2022 — could quickly balloon.
"I encourage all parties to focus their interventions on the narrow scope of the Production Increase Proposal Renewal currently under consideration," he wrote.
He cites the "vast amount of information already submitted to the public record" from the reviews of Baffinland's expansion project, and its earlier production increase proposals.
Speaking to CBC News on Wednesday, Karen Costello, executive director of the NIRB, said the board had not yet made any decisions about how the review will be done, or how quickly.
"[Vandal's letter] has been advanced to the board to inform their decision-making, on not only the process but the timing of the process," she said.
'Lack of respect for the regulatory process,' HTO says
Other organizations, along with QIA, have already weighed in on what the process might look like.
David Ningeongan of Nunavut Tunngavik wrote to NIRB last week to say the review process could proceed "in writing with appropriate accommodations and support for community intervenors to ensure their full participation."
The Mittimatalik Hunters and Trappers Organization (MHTO), meanwhile, argues that Baffinland's proposed production increase again this year warrants a "full review process." The organization, based in nearby Pond Inlet, Nunavut, argues in a letter to NIRB that the mine is having a devastating impact on local wildlife populations and that amounts to "an emergency for Inuit."
The MHTO also argues that Baffinland knew its production increase to six million tonnes per year was temporary and due to expire last year. The company should have shown better foresight, it says.
"This lack of respect for the regulatory process is not an emergency that warrants the Board accelerating its reconsideration," the MHTO letter states.
"It is a dangerous precedent to set to allow proponents to not plan for the expiry of authorizations and then claim that the impacts to its workforce as a result of that lack of a plan are an emergency that warrants accelerating regulatory reviews."
Environmental group Oceans North echoes those sentiments in its own letter to the NIRB last week, saying Baffinland's request does not constitute an "emergency," and the livelihoods of Nunavummiut should not be on the line.
"This situation is a foreseeable consequence of poor management and planning," Oceans North vice president Christopher Debicki wrote.
"Our concern is that Baffinland will continue to use threats of layoffs and mine closure to pressure the NIRB and other stakeholders to approve current and future expansion of the mine."
Oceans North argues that Baffinland's production increase proposal warrants "in-person or videoconference proceedings," and says reviews and hearings should be televised and recorded.
"It is also very important that parties hear each other's concerns. This is difficult to do when each party writes a separate (and at times untranslated) letter," Debicki wrote.
Debicki's letter says the Mary River project has had a significant impact on narwhal populations in the area, and that's not been adequately addressed in earlier reviews.