Canada’s last mining frontier about to be opened – by Bill Mann, ( – September 19, 2012)

Baffin Island iron mine poses daunting logistical challenges

PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. (MarketWatch) — It’s been called “Ice Train Station Zebra” by some Canadian quipsters. No one has ever built a railway on huge Baffin Island, part of which is north of the bottom half of Greenland. That is, until now. A huge iron mine that will use the railroad was formally greenlit by the government last week after months of hearings, four years of planning, and big proxy fights.

You can almost hear the strains of “I’ve been working on the railroad…and freezing my butt off.” Some of the native people who live up in the Canadian territory of Nunavut and attended the government hearings hunt caribou for a living and said they didn’t know what a railroad might look like.

When the arctic railroad (possible name: Burlington Far Northern?) is completed, it will truly be an iron horse — hauling some of the purest iron ore in the world from the Mary River open-pit mine to a port that also needs to be built, at Steensby Inlet. About 25 million tons a year of ore, to be exact. Waiting for that ore will be ice-breaking freighters — also not yet built — which couldn’t have reached the area until climate change made it accessible.

Nunavut’s Impact Review Board, after months of hearings, put nearly 200 terms and conditions (almost all of them environmental) on the huge, C$4 billion Mary River project last week in its decision. The developer, Toronto-based Baffinlands Iron Mines Corporation (70% owned by Luxembourg-based steel-mining giant ArcelorMittal) is studying the proposal and has issued assurances it will be a responsible mega-extractor.

The reason someone is finally willing and able to build a railroad this far north?

A big part of it is climate change, which has also opened the Northwest Passage and other northern shipping routes to large yachts and cruise ships. Then there’s the high current demand for minerals, especially iron, among developing countries. Mining’s last frontier has become financially feasible, given high commodities prices. The huge Mary River deposit on Baffin Island was discovered 50 years ago by a Cessna-flying mining prospector, Murray Watts, who was amazed at the purity of the deposit.

Gordon McCreary, Baffinland’s CEO from 2004 to 2010 (when it was a small mining company), said in a 2006 interview: “You fly over the top, you see all that black stuff and your compass is spinning in circles.”

When iron prices shot up two years ago, Mary River owner Baffinland became the target of a global bidding war that pitted a U.S. private-equity fund against Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steelmaker. After battling for months the two sides called a truce and made a joint offer last January. The takeover closed in March. Arcelor controls 70% of Baffinland.

The purity of the iron ore at Mary River, around 70 %, means that, as one Canadian media report put it, “it can be picked up, dusted off, and tossed into a blast furnace.”

A blast furnace in Europe, that is. That’s perhaps the trickiest part — getting it to the ships from the open-pit mine.

When I first wrote about the Mary River project here almost two years ago, the scale of the operation seemed immense and daunting. It still does. Some 5,000 jobs will be created by the building of the 70-mile-long railroad, as well as special locomotives, a seaport, and 10 huge icebreaking cargo ships, all bigger than anything plying the Atlantic.

An airstrip also needs to be built to handle commercial jets.

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