Ekati public hearing highlights concerns around development effects on endangered caribou

A photo of the Ekati Diamond Mine. (Photo retrieved from Arctic Canadian Diamond Company website.)

If communities knew the effects of mining on caribou, they never would have supported the development.

That comment came up from Lutsel K’e Dene First Nation during last week’s public hearing on Ekati’s proposed Point Lake project.

The statement echoed many concerns from other Indigenous governments around the project’s effect on caribou and their migration.

Mine says modelling shows no effect

Arctic Canadian Diamond Company (ACDC), which now owns Ekati, has proposed to empty Point Lake of all water and fish to mine the kimberlite pipe underneath. Most of the water would be pumped to Lac du Sauvage via pipeline.

ACDC estimates the project would extend the mine’s life by about five years to 2029.

While the lake is already within the mine’s boundary, the concern for the caribou comes from how the waste rock will be managed.

ACDC says the waste rock pile needs to be kept near the Point Lake pit for the project to be economically viable.

But that means another large contaminated rock pile on the mine site, which is in the Bathurst caribou migration path.

Harry O’Keefe, the superintendent of environment for ACDC, explained the company created a model on the possible impact to caribou and that it was “confident” in the results. O’Keefe said the modelling assumed no caribou would go near the mine site, therefore taking the longest possible route around and expending the most energy while migrating to calving grounds.

Those studies were done for the proposed Jay project, which the company has since dropped. However, they are still using this data for the Point Lake project, which sits about halfway between Jay and the Misery pit.

“In summary, should caribou avoid the area entirely and should they also simultaneously receive the longest possible disturbance, it was concluded that there wouldn’t be a biological effect,” said O’Keefe. He added that some animals still travel through the mine site, meaning the effects would be even fewer on them.

Todd Slack, a consultant working on behalf of Łutsel Kʼe, asked whether ACDC would be ready to have a clause in the closure plan where it would pay a penalty if caribou did suffer adverse consequences.

“Essentially, it’s important that the company puts its money behind its commitments,” said Slack. “Łutsel Kʼe would like to ensure that these predictions will have consequences if shown to be wrong.”

O’Keefe said the company has already committed to coming up with a land use plan for “future use for communities and wildlife.”

“I believe everybody in this room understands that caribou do not follow the exact same migration route every year… And (ACDC) could do everything in its power and achieve all of the closure objectives to facilitate caribou use of the area, but should they not choose to go there every year, we need to have a measurable endpoint of that success.”

He added that caribou distribution is not a specific enough goal to implement a penalty clause.

Alternative and mitigation

Instead of having the waste rock on land, the Tłı̨chǫ Government proposed the mine put it in O’Connor Lake.

“These piles will be there forever and we cannot make a mistake that impacts caribou during the lives of all the future generation of Tłı̨chǫ citizens,” said Violet Camsell-Blondin, manager of lands for the Tłı̨chǫ Government.

She later added, “Elders do not see the numerous mining projects in the area as separate projects. Caribou feel the effects of all mines and roads together, they all form a dam that blocks (the land). The Point Lake project is adding to the barrier effect on caribou.”

Eric Denholm is a consultant working for ACDC.

He outlined the reasons against putting the waste rock in O’Connor Lake: It would remove another lake, including all the fish, from the landscape and make it unusable; this would require additional permitting from Fisheries and Oceans Canada; only about one-third of the estimated amount of the waste rock could be put in the lake; another road would need to be built to the lake; and the slope of the lake side may make it unsafe to deposit the waste rock in the bottom.

“For all these reasons, it’s not something that we consider as a feasible way to go forward for this project,” he said.

Part of the project includes building a road — which is already under construction — to Point Lake. ACDC has said it will also build “ramps” to make it easier for caribou to cross the road, like it has with others on site.

“They do make the caribou’s life easier, if not all of the time, it does ensure some easy and safe areas for them to get back onto the tundra,” said O’Keefe.

Protecting the tataà

During the hearing, ACDC presented five possible plans to have the waste rock pile near Point Lake.

When presented with the options, most Indigenous governments focused on the protection of a tataà (Tłı̨chǫ for ‘esker’) that caribou used to travel across the land.

The tataà leads nearly directly to Point Lake, at which point caribou are likely to be funneled between the esker and the proposed rock piles, or between the rock piles and Lac du Sauvage.

The Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency asked each Indigenous government which corridor they believed caribou would likely follow.

Shawn McKay spoke on behalf of the Fort Resolution Métis Government. He said he spoke with experienced harvesters.

“(Caribou) only used to be two hours away from Res to now it’s two days,” he said.

He added, there would be several factors that would determine which way the caribou would go when confronted with the rock piles: noise, forage opportunities, obstacles like roads and pipelines, among others.

“Given the responses I’ve got, it’s likely going to be those that are ultimately going to choose the route for the caribou,” and not just the direction of the corridor, he said.

The Wek’èezhìi Land and Water Board is expected to make a final recommendation to Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson by March 2022.

If the project is approved, the company plans on emptying Point Lake in the summer.

Disclaimer: The author’s partner was a participant in the hearing for the North Slave Métis Alliance.

About the Author

Francis Tessier-Burns
Francis was a reporter with CKLB from January 2019 to March 2023. In his time with CKLB, he had the immense pleasure and honour of learning about northern Indigenous cultures.