Environmental and social impact assessment ("ESIA") has become obligatory for major developments in Canada since the mid 1970s. Because of the constitutional division of powers, the federal, provincial and territorial governments each have their own assessment processes. Many modern treaties, including the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement ("JBNQA") and the Northeastern Quebec Agreement ("NEQA"), create special regimes of ESIA that provide explicitly for the protection of the treaty rights of the signatories and that grant the signatories a special role in the assessment process.
The purpose of ESIA is not to stifle development. Rather, its purpose is to ensure that development is rendered as compatible as possible with the protection of the natural environment and that it takes into account the rights, concerns and interests of those who will be affected by it. Many regimes provide for public hearings and other opportunities for input by interested groups and individuals.
In recent years, the notion of sustainability and the requirement to obtain what is often called a "social licence" have become important aspects of ESIA.
Where several developments occur in or are planned for a given area, ESIA tries to assess how the impacts of each might interact so as to create cumulative impacts.
NML's projects are located in several environmental jurisdictions: Newfoundland and Labrador; Quebec; and the territories of the JBNQA and the NEQA.
That poses special challenges.
NML is proactive with respect to ESIA. At the very earliest planning stages of each of its projects, it contacts the responsible authorities. It works with them to design its projects in ways that avoid or minimize their impacts. It also collaborates to ensure that the documents that it submits are to the highest standards and that the assessment processes operate as efficiently as possible.
In terms of avoiding impacts, the DSO Project has at least two notable aspects: the processing and related infrastructure was located in a "brown field" area that had already been affected by mining activity between the 1950s and the early 1980s; fish-free abandoned mines will be used to dispose of tailings and process water, thereby avoiding some of the major negative impacts often associated with mining.
To date, NML has obtained environmental releases for the first two phases of the DSO Project from the governments of Newfoundland and Labrador, Quebec and Canada without any requirement to make major changes to its supporting documentation.
A particular challenge of northern mining is restoring the large areas of habitat that are sometimes lost, particularly using indigenous plant species and local persons. In that regard, NML is trying to initiate a research project in collaboration with Université Laval to develop restoration techniques that can yield rapid and long-term results.
Looking to the future, NML will continue to assess the environmental and social impacts of mining other direct-shipping ore deposits. It has also initiated a feasibility study of its LabMag and KéMag taconite deposits, which includes a major environmental component. In pursuing the preceding initiatives, NML will put into practice the lessons that it has learned to date, so as to ensure that it meets the highest possible environmental and social standards.
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