Plans to build an all-season road from Highway 3 to Whati have passed an environmental assessment.

The Mackenzie Valley Review Board issued its approval in a report extending to more than 400 pages late last week, a major step in a process which has taken almost two years.

The board concluded building the road “is likely to cause significant adverse impacts on the environment,” but approved the project as long as 23 recommendations to mitigate those impacts are followed.

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Final approval before work can begin rests with the territory’s minister of lands and the Tlicho Government.

Read: The Mackenzie Valley Review Board’s full report (pdf)

Among the 23 must-follow recommendations in the report, the board lists plans to protect caribou, fish, and birds. However, the board also demands specific steps are taken to protect members of the community themselves.

Summarizing its recommendations, the board says the project and its proponents must “track and manage project‐related changes to well‐being of Whatì residents, including harmful behaviours associated with increased access to drugs and alcohol, traffic accidents, safety of young women and changes in harvest success,” as well as requiring “policies that increase the safety of young women in work camps and communities.”

‘Profound, permanent changes’

Whati, which has a population of around 500, is currently only accessible to vehicles using an ice road in winter. The Tlicho Government says the new road, around 95 km in length and connected to the highway west of Behchoko, will “decrease the cost of living and increase the amount of time that the winter roads to Gameti and Wekweeti are operable.”

The board, explaining why it calls for actions to safeguard community members, said in the report: “Although the project is proposed partly for socio‐economic benefits to Whati, the evidence indicates that it is also likely to cause certain adverse impacts that have the potential to cause serious harm, such as impacts related to harmful behaviours such as addictions and crime that will increase, at least temporarily, with new access from the project.

“Permanent road access to places outside of Whati, including Yellowknife, may be one of the biggest changes to the community in its history. The Board believes that an additional degree of caution is reasonable when considering a project that can make profound permanent changes to a community’s well‐being.”

Local communities hope one profound change brought on by the road will be the opening of a nearby mining venture.

Fortune Minerals is trying to find hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for its NICO cobalt mine, north of Whati. Cobalt prices are currently climbing through the metal’s use in the growing fields of electric vehicles and associated batteries.

Read: Fortune Minerals’ latest update on NICO (March 27, 2018)

“NICO is a mine that ships out a concentrate, not a gold bar or a bunch or diamonds, so we absolutely have to have road access in order to get our product out to market,” Fortune chief executive Robin Goad told CBC in 2017.

Fortune hopes to begin building its mine in 2019, a project it says will take at least two years.

A request for proposals to build the all-season road was issued by the territorial government last December, with submissions due by the end of August this year. The cost of the road is expected to reach $150 million, with 25 percent of that borne by the federal government.