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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 ...

Permafrost poses another challenge. Baffin Island is covered with continuous permafrost about 400 metres deep. But the surface layer, about three metres thick, is subject to seasonal freezing and thawing. The train track will be set on an embankment measuring up to four metres in height and made from crushed rock to provide stability over the fragile ground. Supports for bridges will be driven into the bedrock to ensure they keep stable if climate change alters the surface.

Once the track is built, the railway will be in constant use. Along with hauling iron ore, the line will provide a passenger service for employees and transport supplies to the mine site. Each train will be at least 110 cars long and rumble down the track at up to 75 kilometres per hour. The total rail fleet will include 367 rail cars and 11 locomotives, especially made to withstand the cold.

The port at Steensby Inlet will handle year-round voyages back and forth to Europe, with one ship moving through the icy waters every 32 hours. The company's shipping fleet will include 10 ice-breaking cargo vessels, some measuring 329 metres in length and having five times the carrying capacity as ships used at the Raglan mine. Most are expected to head to Rotterdam, a round-trip voyage that will take up to 45 days in winter.

A cultural divide

Baffinland officials have taken the proposal to communities across the region for months, with several more meetings slated in coming weeks. It hasn't been easy. Barely 5,400 people live within 400 kilometres of the mine, and their lifestyle is different even from other parts of Nunavut. Roughly 41 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 and 40 per cent of families earn less than $10,000 annually. Many people live off the land, hunting herds of caribou that roam directly across the route of the railway.

Some meetings attracted just five people, many of whom spoke only Inuktitut. But passions ran high and opinions were sharply divided about the project. The regulatory filing includes nearly 700 pages of comments from residents and minutes from several community meetings.

"Our ancestors brought us here through their survival on country food, with no white man," one man said. "I might behave like a white man, but it is my father's words I use when I go hunting. I don't know computers and can't speak English, but I am passionate about our knowledge."

"Thank you for trying to help us get more jobs, but the Inuit and white are different," another man said. "They should be treated equally. When white man is trying to be on top, they don't like Inuit. Don't come here then, if you don't like Inuit."

Officials at Baffinland insist the project will respect the local culture and protect wildlife. They point to other northern mining projects that have not disrupted caribou and provided badly needed opportunity. The Mary River project "has the potential to provide significant benefits to the north and we're just working through a process now that we need to get through and reach a point where we can develop it," said Greg Missal, Baffinland's vice-president of corporate affairs. If all goes well, he added, construction could start in early 2013.

But convincing people like George Qallaut, who lives in Igloolik which is across from the Steensby Inlet, won't be easy. During one public meeting, Mr. Qallaut stood up and spoke about the 4,000-year history of the area, and about the dramatic changes in landscape the project will cause.

"The people of Igloolik and Pond Inlet have for centuries met at Mary River during the summer hunting caribou," he told the group.

"An elder present at this meeting got his first caribou at Mary River. Two mountains will be gone in 25 years. Part of their identity will disappear. How can you compensate for this?"

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