Another massive Chinese-owned resource project is before Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet.
Some time in the new year, four federal ministers are to decide how to conduct an environmental review for the Izok Corridor proposal. It could bring many billions of dollars into the Arctic but would also see development of open-pit mines, roads, ports and other facilities in the centre of calving grounds for the fragile Bathurst caribou herd.
"This is going to be the biggest issue," said Sally Fox, a spokeswoman for proponent MMG Minerals, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned Minmetals Resources Ltd.
It would be hard to exaggerate the proposal's scope. Centred at Izok Lake, about 260 kilometres southeast of Kugluktuk, the project would stretch throughout a vast swath of western Nunavut.
Izok Lake would have five separate underground and open-pit mines producing lead, zinc and copper. Another site at High Lake, 300 kilometres to the northeast, would have another three mines.
MMG also wants a processing plant that could handle 6,000 tonnes of ore a day, tank farms for 35 million litres of diesel, two permanent camps totalling 1,000 beds, airstrips and a 350-kilometre all-weather road with 70 bridges that would stretch from Izok Lake to Grays Bay on the central Arctic coast.
MMG plans a port there that could accommodate ships of up to 50,000 tonnes that would make 16 round trips a year -- both east and west -- through the Northwest Passage.
Izok Lake would be drained, the water dammed and diverted to a nearby lake. Three smaller lakes at High Lake would also be drained. Grays Bay would be substantially filled in.
The result would be a project producing 180,000 tonnes of zinc and another 50,000 tonnes of copper a year.
"That's not insignificant," Fox deadpanned.
The deposits are an old story. Izok was discovered in the late 1970s and High Lake dates back to the 1950s. They'd been owned by a half-dozen different companies before they were acquired by Minmetals in 2009.
Their time has come, said Fox.
"They're very much about our future confidence in zinc," she said from Melbourne, Australia, where MMG is headquartered. "We see in the next few years a number of major zinc mines will be coming off-line."
One of those is MMG's own Century mine, which produces 500,000 tonnes of zinc annually.
"Between the Izok Corridor project in Canada and our other project in Australia, we would be hoping that they would replace the zinc production of our Century mine," Fox said.
MMG estimates the Izok project would create about 1,100 jobs during construction and 710 permanent jobs. The mine life is estimated at 12 years, but Fox said exploration is likely to expand that.
But more than 400 individuals, organizations, aboriginal groups and governments registered concerns about the project with the Nunavut Impact Review Board.
"Both the Izok Lake mine site and the High Lake mine site, as well as the route of the Izok corridor all-weather road, occur either near to or on the Bathurst calving ground," wrote the government of the Northwest Territories.
"The proposed project may cause significant adverse effects on the ecosystem and wildlife habitat," wrote Environment Canada.
"We are concerned that our hunting and harvesting rights will be in jeopardy if the project is allowed to proceed as is," added the Lutsel K'e Dene.
Many pointed out that the Bathurst herd has only recently stabilized after a 90 per cent drop in the 1980s to today's 32,000 animals. That drop was steep and sustained enough for aboriginal groups to stop hunting the herd and many are leery of anything that could impede its recovery.
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