Baffinland Iron Mines has sent termination notices to over 1,100 workers at Mary River iron ore mine, in Canada’s Nunavut territory, as the company’s request to increase production to 6 million tonnes through to the end of the year and an expansion application have yet to be answered.
The operation on the northern tip of Baffin Island suffered a major blow in May, after a review board advised against an expansion on environmental grounds.
After four years of consultations and deliberations, the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) rejected Baffinland’s application to more than double output to 12 million tonnes a year, to eventually reach 30 million tonnes annually.
Unionized workers at the mine have asked the government to allow the expansion, which would be the only way to save the jobs of thousands, many of whom are Inuit employees.
“For a number of reasons, the regulatory process is moving more slowly than is necessary to meet Baffinland’s operational requirements,” chief executive Brian Penney said in an update to staff this week.
The company is preparing for two rounds of terminations to take effect on September 25 and October 11 if it is not successful in renewing its permit, Penney added.
Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman said the letters were sent to employees last weekend “out of an abundance of caution” in the event that mine operations aren’t approved by the time it meets its current production limit.
He added that if the company doesn’t hear from authorities soon, it would have to suspend operations for the rest of the year. It noted this would happen once the mine reaches its current 4.2 million-tonnes limit on ore extraction, which is expected by mid-September.
“If we receive approval to continue mining at 6 million tonnes this year as we are hoping, we will rescind the termination notices,” Akman said.
The spokesperson noted it was Baffinland’s hope that a requested expedited NIRB process, which the Minister of Northern Affairs has encouraged and asked that it be wrapped up by August 26th, will result in a positive response to the company’s application and so prevent planned layoffs.
The Local 793 Union says Mary River mine has long provided well-paying jobs to Canadian workers from across the country, including hundreds of workers from Nunavut who continue to be prioritized for training opportunities.
The mine provides royalties and community benefits that directly help local Inuit communities, the union said.
“We understand that the mine represents nearly 23% of the GDP for Nunavut and is a vital component for Nunavut’s future economic growth,” it added.
NIRB is currently assessing Baffinland’s request to carry on extracting ore at a similar rate as recent years. The federal minister of Northern Affairs, Dan Vandal, is in turn mulling what to do with the NIRB’s recommendation to not allow the mine expansion as planned.
In total, Baffinland employs more than 2,500 people, including contractors.
Expansion detractors have argued for months that expanding the mine’s capacity would affect the world’s densest narwhal population.
Narwhals are a type of whale with a long, spear-like tusk that protrudes from its head. The marine mammal is an important predator in Eclipse Sound and other Arctic waters, as well a major food source for Inuit in the region.
Last year, a group of hunters from Arctic Bay and Pond Inlet blocked access to the mine in protest of the company’s ice breaking practices due to their negative impacts on narwhals.
The company agreed to avoid ice breaking in spring, based on “the precautionary principle that is the foundation of our adaptive management plan,” Baffinland’s CEO said in a statement at the time.