The spread of dust caused by Baffinland Iron Mines Corp.’s Mary River mine is larger than predicted and is impacting drinking water, wildlife and sea ice in the surrounding area, says a Qikiqtani Inuit Association manager.
Regulatory affairs manager Chris Spencer presented three years’ worth of reports to the association’s board members for the first time Thursday. The reports summarize an investigation, launched in 2020, into how dust spread from the mine is affecting the environment and Inuit culture.
QIA found foxes near the mine that were “deeply discoloured red” and acting strangely; that dust spread was worse than what Baffinland had predicted it would be each year; and that water in several locations had surpassed national drinking water safety guidelines for aluminium content.
“The issue is due to the amount of dust, how far the dust is travelling, impacts to the surrounding environment, Inuit culture and wildlife, and the fact that Baffinland has so far not been able to effectively mitigate all of these impacts,” Spencer said.
“Baffinland also does not recognize the impact to Inuit, what level of dust is acceptable to Inuit.”
Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman said the company agrees dust spread is worse than predicted, but that those predictions were made nearly 10 years ago.
Even still, he said, metals from the dust are not accumulating in the environment.
“Baffinland has been conducting metals sampling in soil, vegetation and fish tissues in the area and can objectively state that metals are not accumulating in the environment that would pose a threat to humans or wildlife,” he wrote in an email.
“Baffinland is constantly looking at improvements to reduce dust generation as we acknowledge that visible dust on the land can create an undesirable impact.”
The investigation began in 2020 and expanded each year afterward.
Some Pond Inlet residents travelled to the land around the Mary River project to collect evidence of the dust impact, such as gathering samples of ice and snow by digging through layers.
In 2020 alone, QIA found dust spread was worse than what Baffinland predicted it would be in 14 of 16 areas.
“The dust is spreading across the sea ice. This has been observed by hunters and travellers from the community of Mittimatalik [Pond Inlet] and is very concerning,” Spencer said. “It is changing the characteristics of the ice.”
In 2021, QIA travelled to 20 locations for samples and sent them to a southern lab.
In several locations, dust levels exceeded national health guidelines for fish, the results showed. It found caribou could face “adverse impacts” if they ate snow that had dust on it.
In 2022, QIA travelled to 24 locations, took dust samples from snow and checked it against national safety levels for water and wildlife. Again, the amount of dust was above Baffinland’s predictions for the year, Spencer said, and several samples that were taken close to cabins exceeded the national drinking water guidelines.
For example, aluminium levels were higher than recommended in five of 22 locations for livestock, six of 22 for water and at least 16 of 22 for fish.
The amount of dust decreased as QIA got further from the mine project, meaning that it is the source of the dust, Spencer said.
QIA member-at-large Liza Ningiuk said she’s seen ptarmigan and foxes that are discoloured, and wondered if QIA has any results on how the dust may be affecting animals.
The foxes QIA found were given to a Government of Nunavut wildlife officer to be sampled, and it is awaiting the GN’s response, Spencer said.
Jared Ottenhof, QIA’s lands and resource director, said one specialist he spoke to said there’s a concern of bio-accumulation.
“So as one animal eats another animal, it takes on not only its own absorption of dust, but the animal it eats as well,” he said. “You start to see this chain reaction happen.”
If it is found that the wildlife is contaminated, Ottenhof said it can be compensated through the wildlife compensation fund.
Qikiqtani Inuit Association staff and board members met in an Aqsarniit hotel conference room this week for their board of directors and annual general meetings. (Photo by David Venn)
Baffinland agrees to mitigate dust impacts
Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal recently approved Baffinland’s application to increase its shipping limit from 4.2- to six million tonnes in 2022.
Part of that approval came because Baffinland and QIA reached an agreement on a number of commitments to protect the environment, 23 of which relate directly to dust impacts, Ottenhof said.
The company has agreed to build wind fences, use more dust suppressants and make changes to the terrestrial working group, which will value Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge, such as these reports, and western science, he said.
Ottenhof said a recommendation made in the working group is one that Baffinland has to follow, though there’s no exact consequence outlined if it doesn’t.
“As far as consequences go, it’s essentially up to dispute resolution,” he said. “So there’s no fixed set of steps right now.”
Overall, QIA is happy with Baffinland’s commitments, Ottenhof said.
Akman said there are 37 commitments specific to dust mitigation that arose from the most recent permit approval.
Some of these are in direct response to these reports, which QIA shared with Baffinland.
The company is also participating in a dust audit, carried out by Nunammi Stantec Ltd., which will be reviewed by community representatives from the five potentially affected communities on north Baffin Island, Akman said.
“Although monitoring results to date indicate no long-term negative effects of dustfall on vegetation, aquatic environments, marine environments, wildlife or human health, Inuit have identified the presence of dustfall as an effect in itself,” he said.
“The visibility of dust on snow or in drinking water affects Inuit perceptions regarding the esthetics and quality of the environment.”
However, Ottenhof said, Inuit should be the decisionmakers on how much dust is too much.
“As long as Inuit are seeing impacts from dust, there needs to be stronger mitigations,” he said in an interview.
The information QIA gathered is useful because it can now be considered by the Nunavut Impact Review Board for future expansion plans at the mine, Ottenhof said.
One of the next steps will be to share the information with the communities, he added.
David Venn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunatsiaq News