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The Qikiqtani Inuit Association, or QIA, is calling on Baffinland Iron Mines Corp. to make immediate improvements to mitigate environmental damage from its iron ore operations in Nunavut, as stakeholders wait for Ottawa’s decision on whether a planned expansion of the mine is allowed to go ahead.

Earlier this month, the Nunavut Impact Review Board, or NIRB, issued a long-awaited report that recommended against the expansion, saying it has the potential to result in “significant adverse ecosystemic effects on marine mammals and fish, caribou and other terrestrial wildlife.”

NIRB also raised concerns about the possible detrimental impact on vegetation and freshwater, and the “likelihood of significant adverse effects on Inuit harvesting, culture, land use and food security.”

“These potential significant adverse effects cannot be adequately prevented, mitigated, or adaptively managed under proposed mitigation, adaptive management and monitoring programs,” NIRB said.

Federal Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal has the final say on whether the expansion will go ahead, and is due to issue a decision in a little under three months. Mr. Vandal declined an interview. In an e-mail, Kyle Allen, press secretary for Mr. Vandal, wrote that a decision on the expansion will be taken following “appropriate due diligence” and after analysis about whether the constitutional duty to consult the Inuit has been met.

Oakville, Ont.-based Baffinland hopes to double its production of iron ore at its Baffin Island mine in Nunavut to 12 million tonnes a year, from six million tonnes. It also wants to build a railway that would transport ore from the Mary River mine in the Qikiqtani region of North Baffin to Milne Port, about 100 kilometres away.

QIA, the regional Inuit group that distributes mining royalties, said in a statement this week that it was encouraged by NIRB’s recommendation to veto the mine expansion proposal.

“Inuit have said many times that they are not opposed to mining on their lands. But mining on Inuit lands must proceed in a way that Inuit can trust. NIRB recognized that Inuit have important concerns that the current proposal will negatively affect the land, animals, and Inuit way of life,” said Olayuk Akesuk, president of QIA.

Now the Inuit group is making it clear that obtaining a federal rejection of the expansion is not its only objective. QIA wants improvements made to the current operation, including better stewardship over the environment, and higher employment of Inuit at the mine.

“We are placing our attention on working directly with communities and the company to make improvements to the current project, Mr. Akesuk wrote in an e-mail. “QIA wants to see the current project and working relationships improve.”

Over four years of hearings on the expansion, significant environmental concerns were voiced by stakeholders about the existing operation.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., or NTI, the Inuit organization charged with protecting the land rights of the Inuit, last year told The Globe and Mail that iron ore dust kicked up by giant mining trucks had contaminated ice on seal hunting grounds and turned rabbits pink. NTI also said the Arctic char population has plummeted in the years since mining began. Last year, a group of hunters travelled by snowmobile for two days in the dead of winter to stage a blockade at the mine site.

Mary River went into production in 2014 and since then Ottawa has approved production increases on several occasions. In an e-mail, Peter Akman, head of stakeholder relations with Baffinland, said the company will continue to work with Inuit to implement a comprehensive environmental management system, including a dust management protocol, to ensure the project operates in a responsible manner.

Mr. Akman added that Baffinland will be in a position to increase Inuit employment this year to 400 people, from 311, or 16.6 per cent of its total work force, if the expansion plan is approved.

Should the production increase go ahead, Baffinland estimates the mine will generate $679-million in taxes for the government of Nunavut, $1.5-billion for the federal government, $1.4-billion to the NTI in royalties, and $1-billion to the QIA.

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