The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board has decided it will not order an environmental assessment for the Ekati diamond mine’s Point Lake project.
The review board said the reasons for that decision will be published shortly. Earlier, the board had suggested a new environmental assessment could be needed.
Ekati owner Arctic Canadian Diamond Company has suggested it will drop the Jay project, an earlier proposed development at the mine, and instead focusing on Point Lake.
The Jay project, farther from the existing Ekati site than Point Lake, is a pit that went through environmental assessment and received permitting four years ago but is no longer considered economically viable.
Arctic Canadian, which is trying to avoid a time-consuming environmental assessment for Point Lake, argues removing Jay from its Ekati water licence would prove the mine – and any of its future owners – will not restart that project.
In essence, the company argues that Point Lake’s environmental footprint will fit within the footprint Jay would have created, so there’s no need to environmentally assess a similar set of impacts twice if the mine commits to abandoning Jay for good.
However, there is currently no legal process to do what Arctic Canadian proposes: reversing the 22 measures created for the Jay project in its original environmental assessment.
In September, the review board asked both Arctic Canadian and the territorial government how the existing Jay measures could be adapted for Point Lake.
While the review board now appears satisfied no fresh environmental assessment is needed, what will happen to the Jay measures – which currently must by law be carried out, regardless of Jay’s actual existence – remains unclear.
The review board previously said a new “environmental assessment process of some type” could be needed to remove the Jay measures, but that’s what Arctic Canadian was trying to avoid by pledging never to develop Jay as an open pit.
The Wek’èezhìı Land and Water Board had earlier also concluded a new environmental assessment was not necessary. Theoretically, a number of different agencies – including the GNWT and Tłı̨chǫ Government – can themselves trigger environmental assessments. In practice, most agencies defer to the land and water board.
Environmental assessments are detailed studies of proposed major projects’ environmental footprints. Mining companies typically try to avoid them as they are perceived to take valuable time and money.
In a letter dated October 18, the review board said it would not order an environmental assessment on its own motion.
“In making this decision, the Review Board carefully considered the Wek’èezhìı Land and Water Board’s preliminary screening decision for the Point Lake Project, responses to the review board’s information requests from both Arctic and [the Government of the Northwest Territories’ Department of Lands], and other relevant information available on the public record,” wrote JoAnne Deneron, chair of the review board.
Arctic Canadian has argued avoiding environmental assessment is important as Point Lake needs to be up and running sooner rather than later to keep Ekati operational.
In a presentation earlier this year, Arctic Canadian said Point Lake is a “short-term development of accessible resources to avoid operations interruption” between 2023 and 2028, keeping hundreds of people employed and Ekati open. Without the new pit, Arctic Canadian claimed, the mine will shut down for good in 2024.
“The decision from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board is extremely important for both the Point Lake project and for the overall future of the Ekati diamond mine,” said Arctic Canadian’s interim president, Rory Moore, by email after this article had first been published.
“The Point Lake project provides an essential bridge between the currently active mining operations at Ekati and the longer-term developments that require several years for design, permitting, and construction.
“Any delay to the Point Lake project would put the future of Ekati at risk and so we are obviously extremely pleased with the decision.”
Even without an environmental assessment, Point Lake must successfully acquire a water licence and land-use permit. Arctic Canadian must demonstrate the impact on nearby land, water, vegetation, and wildlife can be mitigated to regulators’ satisfaction.
A public hearing about the proposal is scheduled for November 22 to 26.