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Baffinland Iron Mines is developing an iron ore mining operation in the northern part of Baffin Island (Baffinland Iron Mines)
Baffinland Iron Mines is developing an iron ore mining operation in the northern part of Baffin Island (Baffinland Iron Mines)

A railway to Arctic riches: economic boom, environmental threat? Add to ...

A handful of people shuffle into the community hall in Kimmirut, Nunavut, a tiny outpost on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It's early December, and the small group shakes off the cold winter air and settles into folding chairs to hear a presentation about something completely foreign to Baffin Island - a railway.

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"I have never seen a railway before," a woman named Joannie tells the gathering, according to minutes of the meeting. "Could you give a better idea of what the train will look like?"

Nobody else has seen a railway on Baffin Island either. No one has built one this far north, anywhere. But now - thanks to an insatiable global demand for minerals, and climate change that has opened up northern shipping routes - a rail line across part of Baffin Island is about to become a reality.

It's also a sign of things to come. Places like Baffin Island have always held a treasure trove of minerals, but low commodity prices, coupled with the high cost of operating in the Arctic, left many deposits undeveloped. With prices for nearly every mineral now soaring, however, mining's last frontier has become financially viable. And with temperatures climbing because of global warming, mining in the Arctic has become logistically possible as well, because sea lanes stay open longer due to thinner ice and railways can operate year round.

In the past year, two iron ore mines in Norway's far north have been re-opened after being abandoned for 14 years and there are plans to open an iron ore mine in northern Sweden. Greenland has been overrun with dozens of mining companies eager to dig into rich deposits of uranium, zinc and rare earth minerals that have been uncovered by melting ice caps. Russian cargo ships have started plying the icy Arctic waters carrying tonnes of minerals from mines in Siberia to Rotterdam.

The people in Kimmirut and several other communities across Nunavut are already getting an idea of what's about to happen in Canada. For months, they've been poring over plans for a giant iron ore mine at Mary River, on the northern reaches of Baffin Island and roughly 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit. It is easily among the most ambitious mining ventures ever undertaken in the Arctic, and an illustration of the lengths to which companies are going to find the resources to build the world's emerging economies.

The mine itself will be an open-pit operation spanning more than two kilometres across the top of a small mountain. There will also be a townsite with an airstrip capable of handling commercial jets, and a deepwater sea port fit for 10 ice-breaking cargo ships roughly 15 times larger than any vessel currently sailing the eastern Arctic.

Linking everything together will be a 149-kilometre railway that is designed to carry trains stretching more than one kilometre in length from the mine site to the port. The mine, the trains and the ships are intended to operate every day for 21 years and move 18 million tonnes of iron ore annually to ships that will take the metal to blast furnaces in steel mills across Europe.

The impact on Nunavut will be profound. The mine is expected to triple the territory's annual gross domestic product growth rate and provide nearly $5-billion in tax revenue and royalties to the territory over the life of the project. It will create more than 5,000 direct jobs, many more indirect positions and offer training opportunities in an area of the country where four out of every six people live in social housing and life expectancy is 10 years lower than the rest of Canada.

But there will also be consequences. The mine will leave untold scars on the natural landscape and cut into the fragile permafrost. It will affect caribou migration, disturb walrus populations and have an impact on seals, polar bears, beluga whales, foxes, ermines, lemmings, hares and narwhals. It is an age-old tension - jobs and economic development versus the environmental costs - but one that is about to be felt in new ways in northern communities around the world, and particularly in Canada.

Mining in the north isn't new; there are other projects in Nunavut. But it has never been attempted on this scale before. Iron ore is all about volume, and by that measure, no other mining project in Canada's North comes close to Mary River. The nearest comparison is the Raglan nickel mine in Northern Quebec, a key holding of Anglo-Swiss giant Xstrata PLC. Raglan produces about 1.3 million tonnes of nickel annually, making it a large-scale nickel operation. But that's still less than 10 per cent of the product that will hauled out of Mary River every year.

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