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Where Arctic camels once roamed, coal mining can wait

CBC NewsEye on the Arctic

A coal exploration project proposing to tread the same ground as the ancient fossil forests on Nunavut's Ellesmere Island has been temporarily put on the shelf.

Canada Coal has delayed its exploration program on Ellesmere Island for at least a year, and withdrawn its application to Nunavut regulators, saying it needs more time to address a host of concerns raised by people in nearby Grise Fiord and scientists across Canada and the U.S.

Canada Coal’s active exploration licenses cover more than 2,700 square miles, mostly on Ellesmere’s Fosheim Peninsula. The company had proposed to set up a 20- to 30-person field camp next summer in order to map and drill for coal the region.

However, the project was controversial.

The Fosheim Peninsula is a renowned source of unique fossils, including alligators, turtles and primates that lived on the Arctic Island 50 million years ago, as well as beavers and horses that occupied the site just a few million years ago.

‘A paleobiological hotspot’

“Frankly, when you discover something new, something people have never seen before, or something that really fills in an important piece of a puzzle, it’s a thrill,” says Jim Basinger, a paleontologist at the University of Saskatchewan.

Basinger spent years digging up fossilized plants on Ellesmere and Axel Heiberg islands and is one of several scientists and scholars who’ve written to Nunavut regulators, stressing the region’s scientific importance.

“These fossils give us tremendous insight into polar climates, and polar climate change,” Basinger says.

In March, researchers at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature made international headlines when they found ancient, mummified camel bones in the Strathcona Fiord region — the most northerly region to ever yield camel bones.

Mark Graham, the Museum’s Vice President of Research and Collections, calls the Fosheim Peninsula “a paleobiological hotspot”.

“It’s a hotspot just because of the diversity of things that can be found,” he says, “but also because of the kinds of information that it brings us that allows us to comment on previous climates, and make predictions about what might happen.”

Home to polar bears, Peary, caribou

Canada Coal’s proposal has also sparked concern within Nunavut.

The territory’s environment department says the area targeted for drilling is home to animals listed under the Species At Risk Act, including polar bears and the endangered Peary caribou.

The region is also home to several bird species listed under SARA: Peregrine falcons and Red Knot (both listed as species of “special concern”), and Ross’s Gull (listed as “threatened”).

Inuit in the nearby community of Grise Fiord have echoed the concerns about wildlife.

“Some of [Canada Coal’s] work plans, we want to be able to look at them closely,” says Larry Audlaluk of Grise Fiord. “For example, their water delivery program in their camp will involve helicopter use. That creates noise. We want to make sure that if they’re going to go and do their thing, the disturbance levels will be minimized.”

Canada Coal plans more consultation

By delaying its project, Canada Coal is aiming to avoid the fate of Weststar Resources, a company that previously held the exploration licenses on the Fosheim Peninsula.

In early 2010, Nunavut regulators rejected Weststar’s proposed exploration plans, citing similar concerns. Soon after, Weststar sold its licences to Canada Coal.

Canada Coal says it will now set up a “working group” with representatives from the company, Grise Fiord, and regulatory agencies.

This doesn’t mean the project will come to a halt.

“We’re not against them,” says Audlaluk. “We’re not against development.”

Rather, Audlaluk says people in Grise Fiord don’t want to be rushed.

Basinger also says his goal is not to kill the coal project. He thinks the key paleontological sites can be identified and preserved, while also allowing some development.

“In a region that large, the fossil resource is actually quite confined,” says Basinger. “You couldn’t justify, on the basis of paleontology, an exclusion of mining from the entire region. But I think I can justify preserving an area, a certain area.”

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.