Dominion Diamond must convince regulators that its proposed Ekati diamond mine expansion will not further harm fast-dwindling caribou numbers.
Earlier this month, the territorial government said provisional estimates for 2015 suggest there are now between 16,000 and 22,000 caribou left in the NWT’s Bathurst herd.
There were some 450,000 animals in the same herd in the 1980s, and 35,000 were estimated in 2012 – when numbers appeared to have stabilized.
Dominion sought to minimize the impact of its plans on caribou as a public hearing, held by the Mackenzie Valley Review Board, continued in Yellowknife on Tuesday. After these hearings, the review board will recommend to ministers whether or not to approve the project.
Dominion’s proposal to mine the Jay pipe – an expansion near Ekati’s existing Misery pit, 300 km north-east of Yellowknife – is controversial as the area is considered important to the territory’s few remaining caribou.
“The proposed Jay road cuts directly through [an area] previously established to be an important migratory route. The proposed Jay pit lies directly adjacent to a known migratory route,” said the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) in a presentation prepared for Tuesday’s hearing.
The Lutselk’e Dene First Nation (LKDFN), in its own presentation, said: “Given the precarious position of the Bathurst herd, any impacts are significant. Even if individual impacts are not considered significant, cumulatively the impacts become significant.
“The reasons for herd collapse are unknown, and this should lead to more precautions rather than more risks.”
First Nations and the territory’s Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency (IEMA) are urging the review board to decide that Dominion’s plans will have “significant, negative, cumulative impacts” on the Bathurst herd’s remnants.
LKDFN’s presentation calls for mitigative measures such as more efficient reclamation of disturbed habitat, alternative opportunities if traditional livelihoods are lost, “or even direct financial compensation”.
“If you make an existing significant adverse impact worse, even slightly, it is still a significant adverse effect,” said the IEMA in its presentation, referring to the broader Ekati site.
In full: Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency’s presentation (pdf)
However, Dominion insisted there is “no significant effect” in its plans.
“The residual effects of the Jay project on the Bathurst herd are small and those changes would not be distinguishable from natural variation,” said Dominion’s Elliot Holland.
“If there is any effect, that’s important and it needs to be dealt with. That’s why we’ve taken many different steps to mitigate these impacts: building the majority of the road as a caribou crossing, building egress ramps on and off the waste rock storage pile… the list is long.
“Even after all of those things we’ve committed to, we’re willing to go back to the parties and ask what more we can do. That doesn’t mean everyone here is going to feel good about it – we understand that – but it’s Dominion’s commitment that we’re doing what we can.”
Dominion adds that the decline of other herds, without the presence of mines, demonstrates that “natural factors are important in changes in caribou abundance”.
In full: Dominion Diamond’s presentation on caribou (pdf)
In a report released earlier in September, the territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR) said preliminary results from this year’s survey of the Bathurst herd are “extremely worrisome”.
While final results are not yet available, deputy minister Ernie Campbell believes the number of breeding cows in the herd has declined to 8,000, a 50 percent decline from 2009 and 2012.
In addition, the department witnessed a lower pregnancy rate within the herd in 2015 than in previous surveys. In recent years, said Campbell, calf survival rate has dipped below 30 in 100.
“The number of animals has continued to decline even without the added pressure of harvesting, and with the continued incentives to harvest predators,” Campbell wrote.
“We need to take steps now to conserve the herd over the course of the 2015-2016 hunting season, while we develop a Bathurst herd management proposal with traditional users.”
Campbell’s department wants to establish interim measures to ensure that subsistence harvesters can continue to harvest, and minimize hardship suffered by those reliant on what is now a limited harvest.
The Jay pipe, according to Dominion, could see Ekati’s mine life extended by more than a decade – with consequent benefits for local employment and the territory’s economy.