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Voisey's Bay Mine and Mill Environmental Assessment Panel Report

13 Birds

In the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), VBNC acknowledges that the Project would affect the land-based birds that breed in the Project area, raptors that prey on these birds, and other birds that use Camp Pond, Headwater Pond or the North Tailings Basin. For example, noise, lights and human activity could disturb birds; construction of Project facilities or streamflow alterations to manage tailings could destroy or alter habitat; metals might accumulate in the food chain; and oil released through chronic small oil spills or discharges, or through a major oil spill, could cause oiling effects.

Many questions arose regarding Project effects on the abundant bird species that breed in and migrate through the impact area. Participants expressed major concerns about the definition of the impact area. While VBNC discussed effects along the shipping route as far as the Hens and Chickens, Environment Canada and other participants said that effects on birds that migrate along the shipping route further offshore, such as thick-billed murres and dovekies, should be included in the assessment. Environment Canada and residents of more southern coastal communities also said that the assessment should include the entire shipping route.

This section looks at three important effects on birds:

  • effects on nesting and migrating seabirds and coastal waterfowl;
  • effects on special conservation status birds nesting in the area; and
  • potential effects on the Gooselands.

13.1 Seabirds and Coastal Waterfowl

VBNC chose an assessment area for seabirds and coastal waterfowl that encompassed coastal areas from northern Labrador to the south and west of Lake Melville. VBNC estimated that the breeding populations in this area contribute 63 percent of the geese, 25 percent of the dabbling ducks and 55 percent of the diving ducks migrating annually along the Atlantic Flyway. The area around Nain is described as the second most important seabird breeding area, representing about 13 percent of the Labrador population; an estimated 20,500 pairs of birds breed between Voisey's Bay and Anaktalak Bay and east to the offshore islands. The species involved include common murres, Atlantic puffins, guillemots, scoters, eiders and gulls. Whichever shipping route to Edward's Cove was chosen, the route would pass numerous important breeding colonies of seabirds. In addition, millions of thick-billed murres and dovekies migrate along the offshore areas in the fall.

VBNC stated that the largest potential effect on these birds would be the risk of a major oil spill. Such a spill, depending on the time of the year and the spill location, could foul breeding areas, cause oiling that could kill many breeding birds and affect many birds that stage in the area each fall. The surrounding environment could take years to recover from such an event. The Labrador Inuit Association (LIA) and Environment Canada agreed with this assessment but also emphasized the risk presented by chronic oil spills. They recommended that VBNC enlarge the assessment area to consider the entire shipping route, once the destination port has been chosen. VBNC disagreed, stating that the assessment area is large enough to encompass all Project waterfowl interactions but small enough to avoid diluting study results.

Noise from shore-based Project activities and from shipping activities near nesting sites could threaten breeding birds. There is evidence that breeding populations of some species - especially common eider, black duck, scoters, guillemots and terns - have declined during the past 20 years. One possible cause has been the decrease in food supply, especially capelin. Other factors include the use of snowmobiles and speedboats, which gives harvesters greater access to birds and increases noise disturbance; increased recreational harvesting; and environmental hazards along the Atlantic Flyway. VBNC quotes various studies that associate noise and disturbance with lower breeding productivity, but it concludes that predictable noise levels below 90 dBA have little effect and lead to habituation.

The Panel concludes that great care must be taken to protect this large and important breeding and staging area for waterfowl. It agrees that assessing the impact of Project-related shipping well beyond the Landscape Region would not be useful, due to the cumulative effects of other shipping activities. However, Project-related shipping would be a critical aspect of potential Project effects on waterfowl in the Nain area and an important part of the cumulative effects on birds along the shipping route off Labrador. Measures must be put in place to monitor these effects and to ensure that chronic or accidental effects do not significantly contribute to stress on seabird populations.

Recommendation 62

The Panel recommends that VBNC, in consultation with Environment Canada, LIA, the Innu Nation and other interested parties, develop and implement an environmental protection and emergency response plan for seabirds and waterfowl that clearly identifies all sensitive areas and time periods for seabirds and sea ducks, identifies all potential Project interactions and ensures adequate protection of these areas. These plans should include consideration of all sea ducks and seabirds that migrate through the area and that come into contact with the shipping route.

Recommendation 63

The Panel recommends that VBNC, in consultation with Environment Canada and LIA, develop a vessel oily waste management plan that includes

  • procedures for identifying all potential sources of chronic, relatively small discharges of oil, both accidental and deliberate, as well as large oil spills;
  • an explicit zero-discharge goal for chronic oil pollution originating from Project vessels;
  • best management practices designed to achieve zero discharge, to be reviewed regularly; and
  • provisions for adequate, land-based reception facilities for oily wastes from Project vessels, at both Edward's Cove and at the reception port, including a disposal plan for such wastes.

Recommendation 64

The Panel recommends that VBNC, in consultation with Environment Canada and LIA, develop a monitoring program to evaluate the effects of noise and disturbance from passing vessels on breeding colonies. Based on the results of this program, VBNC should, if necessary, develop and implement additional mitigation measures that may involve alternate shipping routes (these are addressed in Recommendation 37).

13.2 Species of Special Conservation Status

The EIS identified two avian species as having special conservation status. In addition, a presenter raised concerns about a third species at the hearings.

13.2.1 Harlequin Ducks

In 1990, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) listed the eastern population of the harlequin duck as an endangered population. In 1998, the population was estimated at 1,500 birds. There is also a Greenland population, estimated at 1,000 to 2,000 birds; some of these breed in northern Labrador and others breed in Ungava in northern Quebec. The birds in the Voisey's Bay area are thought to be part of the eastern population, which winters off Atlantic Canada and the northeastern US.

The EIS and Additional Information stated that the baseline information on harlequin duck distribution in the Project area came from various sources. These included a 1984 study by the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS), a 1997 study by the Department of National Defence (DND), Aboriginal knowledge, and a series of surveys carried out by VBNC. The VBNC surveys included nine aerial surveys of breeding pairs in 1995-97, three aerial and ground brood surveys in July and August 1996, and three aerial surveys of coastal areas in 1995 and 1996. At the hearings, VBNC provided additional information from an aerial and a ground survey carried out in 1998. The assessment area included the upstream portions of rivers that run through the Claim Block. Peak numbers in the area were 32 breeding pairs in 1997. This represents approximately 20 percent of the known individuals from Labrador surveys and 8 percent of the estimated 1988 eastern population. VBNC expects the Project to displace 2 to 3 breeding pairs from the area of the North Tailings Basin and 1 to 3 pairs from Little Reid Brook, due to noise and human presence during construction.

Loss of Habitat

Environment Canada said harlequin ducks have a high adult survival rate and low breeding productivity. The population estimates are based largely on the number of individuals that winter at a very limited number of favoured locations along the eastern seaboard. If the high survival rate is accurate, then the low growth rate of the population must be the result of low productivity, thus making nesting habitat critical. Environment Canada therefore stated that a better understanding of the extent to which habitat limits the harlequin duck population is needed to assess the immediate and long-term consequences of the Project, and its contribution to cumulative effects. It also indicated that the effectiveness of a habitat replacement or relocation program would depend on the loyalty of breeding birds to nesting sites.

The most evident and irrevocable loss of harlequin duck habitat would take place in the brook that drains the North Tailings Basin. This brook is one of the most productive harlequin duck breeding areas in the area (20 percent of broods). Environment Canada stated that disturbance and the loss of invertebrate populations caused by damming lake outflow would likely render the brook unsuitable for harlequin ducks even after it is rehabilitated. It strongly recommended that VBNC eliminate the North Tailings Basin by backfilling the open pit or using an alternative lake (Option 5).

Environment Canada also commented that VBNC made little attempt to identify the extent to which harlequin ducks use coastal areas, and that it should carry out extensive surveys to ensure that environmental protection and emergency response plans take sensitive coastal habitats into consideration.

VBNC states that the Project would probably result in a net loss of habitat; however, this loss does not appear to be a critical limiting factor for this population. The company predicts that breeding pairs would move to adjacent habitat, with the possible but not inevitable loss of one breeding season. Temporary loss of productivity in the North Tailings Basin area would not have a significant effect. VBNC indicates that the proposed phased approach to tailings disposal in the North Tailings Basin would give the company an opportunity to examine mitigation measures to ensure that brooding pairs are placed in alternate habitat without loss of production.

VBNC stated that the program to examine harlequin duck distribution has lasted four years and will continue. In addition, coastal habitat has been surveyed and harlequin ducks were encountered only once. While the availability of suitable habitat does not appear to be a limiting factor, VBNC would work with other stakeholders to identify and implement mitigation measures to relocate harlequin ducks within the Claim Block. If necessary, it would consider creating or restoring habitat.

Additional Breeding Disruption

VBNC indicated that other factors could potentially disrupt the breeding productivity of harlequin ducks.

The company would need to install culverts across several streams to provide road access to port and tailings facilities , but harlequin ducks do not swim through culverts. VBNC states that harlequin ducks have not been observed along any of the streams to be crossed. It would consider installing bridges if it found harlequin ducks near a stream crossing.

In accordance with the precautionary approach, Environment Canada recommends that, when VBNC is designing and siting roads and other facilities parallel to a watercourse, the company be required to maintain a minimum buffer distance of 100 m in areas that could provide breeding or brooding habitat for harlequin ducks. VBNC would work with CWS to identify places requiring a buffer and would leave room for buffers where practicable.

Genetic Studies

Participants also discussed the importance of defining to which population the birds breeding near Voisey's Bay belong: the one that winters in Greenland or the one that winters on the eastern seaboard. This would help parties identify the potential cumulative threats to the eastern population. Environment Canada recommended that VBNC be required to undertake a study, using telemetry or genetics, to determine the population affinity of the birds in the Voisey's Bay area.

VBNC believes that CWS can best answer the population question and that the question is not an appropriate component of the monitoring framework. The Panel agrees that it would be best if CWS scientists did such a study, in conjunction with VBNC's monitoring program. The Panel notes that, according to reports from the Cheviot Project, such research should be done cautiously. Researchers tried radio telemetry at that site, but monitors fixed to feathers were lost when the birds molted. Surgical implantation of the transmitters apparently led to bird mortality.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Panel concludes that the Project would place an additional cumulative burden on harlequin ducks and could permanently remove breeding habitat. No existing legislation prevents this removal of habitat or requires habitat replacement.

The Panel notes, however, that the first three aspects of the recovery strategy, described in the National Recovery Plan for the Harlequin Duck in Eastern North America (RENEW Report No. 12, March 1995), are as follows:

  • scientific research into reproductive, feeding and behavioral ecology;
  • population monitoring, including sex and age ratios; and
  • habitat protection, including an assessment of factors that affect habitat quality.

The Panel believes that VBNC could provide important data to the recovery program from its ongoing monitoring programs and research into mitigation measures. In addition, VBNC could make research in the Landscape Region invaluable to the success of the recovery program by providing financial or logistical support to CWS scientists. Such aid could well result in the development of practical measures to replace habitat, both in the assessment area and elsewhere, well beyond the two to three breeding sites that the Project would place at risk.

In addition, DND and others continue to evaluate the effects of low-level flying on the harlequin duck population. The number of breeding pairs recorded as part of that monitoring program suggests the breeding population may have been underestimated. Additional work will be carried out in relation to the proposed hydro developments on the lower Churchill River. Combining the results of that research with research from the Project could well provide an understanding of the population dynamics of the harlequin duck that will be vital to success of population recovery efforts.

Recommendation 65

The Panel recommends that VBNC develop an ongoing research and monitoring program for harlequin ducks in the Project area, in consultation with the Canadian Wildlife Service and other interested parties, to better understand the physical, biological and chemical attributes of harlequin duck habitat and to refine an effective mitigation and monitoring strategy.

Recommendation 66

The Panel recommends that VBNC incorporate the following measures into its environmental protection plan in order to protect harlequin ducks and their habitat:

  • construction standards and procedures that require bridges instead of culverts for crossings of waters frequented by harlequin ducks (harlequin duck nest surveys should be carried out 100 m upstream and 100 m downstream of each potential stream crossing site to ensure a minimum separation zone);
  • design standards that ensure appropriate buffer zones between roads and streams that provide harlequin duck habitat, where physically achievable; and
  • procedures to control dust and noise in critical habitat areas.

Recommendation 67

The Panel recommends that VBNC collaborate with Environment Canada, the Department of National Defence, the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and other relevant parties to integrate the methodologies and results of VBNC's on-site harlequin duck monitoring program with those of other monitoring programs or studies related to present, proposed or future developments in Labrador, to ensure valid assessment of the cumulative effects of the Project, including shipping activities.

13.2.2 Peregrine Falcon

VBNC indicated that the peregrine falcon continues to have special conservation status, although population numbers have improved markedly. Approximately 45 nesting territories have been identified in Labrador and about 15 of these are in the Landscape Region. Although no nests occur in the Claim Block, VBNC identified potential habitat overlooking Edward's Cove, and sites have been identified along the shipping route.

The EIS identifies four potential effects of the Project on the peregrine falcon. The research that VBNC quoted on the effects of noise and human presence includes details about effects on birds in urban areas. However, there seems to be a relationship between the bird's height above potential interference and its apparent sense of safety.

VBNC ruled out the potential for metals bioaccumulation in peregrine falcons because its modelling showed no such accumulation in food sources such as the willow ptarmigan. The black guillemot is a prime food source for peregrine falcons in the Voisey's Bay area, so the main threat lies in an oil spill, which would affect this food source. VBNC did not predict significant effects for the peregrine falcon and participants did not bring forward major concerns at the hearings.

13.2.3 Barrow's Golden Eye

One presenter expressed concern that more attention should be paid to the Barrow's golden eye, the eastern species of which also appears to be under great stress. The species is known to occur near Nain. Little information seems to be available and Environment Canada stated that the status of the species is being evaluated. There is no reported occurrence of the Barrow's golden eye at Voisey's Bay, which does not appear to be an important habitat for the bird.

13.3 Impact on the Gooselands

VBNC is proposing to locate a Category 1 airstrip, to be used by aircraft such as the Dash 8, approximately 6 km from the Gooselands. Presenters were most concerned about the effects of noise from this airstrip, although other effects on the area could include hydrological changes resulting from flow alteration in Reid Brook and noise and light effects from mining the Ovoid.

The Gooselands salt marsh, at the estuary of the Ikadlivik and Reid Brook systems, is a critically important waterfowl habitat in the Nain district. It is a valuable spring hunting area because it is the first major stopping place for waterfowl once they arrive in the Nain district. Eggs are gathered in the area and adjacent islands. It is also a vital harvest area in the late summer and fall as, in addition to birds, there is always a reliable subsistence harvest of marine mammals, fish and berries. Harlequin ducks are also present. Inuit presenters were concerned that if nesting and migratory waterfowl abandoned the Gooselands, they would leave the Nain district altogether.

Aboriginal groups and CWS staff suggested that the Gooselands is one of the most productive and extensive habitats of its type along the coast and that it is critical to both breeding and migrating waterfowl. The Panel understands, however, that there has been no systematic assessment of estuarine habitats and related waterfowl areas along the Labrador coast, so information is insufficient to compare and rank the Gooselands with other areas, such as Groswater Bay. Some presenters were concerned, by interfering with migratory waterfowl, the airstrip could effectively remove valuable habitat - placing additional stresses on migrating birds - and affect the success of Aboriginal harvesting efforts.

Airstrip Siting

Using recommendations from an aviation consultant, VBNC decided to move the airstrip site, originally located close to Camp Pond, to the lowlands east of Headwater Pond. VBNC indicated that, of 26 potential sites considered, this was the only one that would allow the 2.5-percent approach necessary for a Category 1 landing system without interference from high ground. Aircraft would pass directly over the Gooselands, about 6 km from the airstrip, when landing from or taking off towards the west. Over the Gooselands, the aircraft altitude would be 172 m on a 2.5-percent instrument approach, 473 m on an 8.2-percent non-instrument approach and 488 m on takeoff.

VBNC offered two justifications for requiring Category 1 landing capability. First, this capability would increase the percentage of flight completions during employee rotations, thus reducing delays on crew changes. VBNC acknowledged that, while this would benefit employees from Goose Bay or Labrador West, employees travelling to and from the coastal communities, none of which have Category 1 airstrips, could still have trouble completing flights.

Second, VBNC wanted to be able to complete flights for medical or personal emergency evacuations. The Panel considers this a reasonable argument, given that up to 500 employees would be present in an industrial workplace, while noting that coastal communities with similar or larger populations do not currently enjoy a similar level of service and protection.

Inuit experts on behalf of LIA criticized the site selection process for not taking environmental effects on the Gooselands into account. Aboriginal groups and Environment Canada expressed concern that the birds, when breeding or resting on the Gooselands, will not habituate to the aircraft noise. Local experience does not support the prediction that waterfowl would return immediately after being flushed. LIA believes there is a risk of long-term, if not permanent, displacement of birds from the Gooselands and the Voisey's Bay estuary. It suggested that Project activities, particularly helicopter noise, may have already displaced birds. This would significantly affect Inuit and Innu harvesting. LIA pointed out that the EIS does not discuss compensation for loss of access to a harvesting resource. It also suggested that bird-aircraft collisions would be a considerable safety hazard.

To support its concerns, LIA presented summary data from a report written by CWS for the Inuvialuit Wildlife Management Advisory Council (NWT) on the effect of aircraft operation on various waterfowl and gulls. This report showed that flyover heights of 450 m and 650 m created significantly different startle effects. The Panel notes that many of the studies involved helicopters, which were seen as causing much more disturbance than fixed-wing aircraft. In addition, the fixed-wing aircraft studies mainly involved the Cessna 185; they did not mention the Dash 8 aircraft proposed for the Project, although they did recommend small aircraft over larger aircraft. The report also indicated that flight timing and aircraft circling influence effects.

VBNC argues that birds would not abandon the Gooselands due to the startle effect, as flight frequency would be low and habituation to noise is expected. It also disagreed that the risk of aircraft-bird collisions would be significant. While VBNC did not ask its aviation consultant to consider environmental effects when selecting sites, the company removed sites located along the shores of Voisey's Bay from consideration and collected additional baseline information after sites were chosen. The company pointed out that, due to prevailing winds, 75 percent of all flights would approach from the east, which means the same number of flights would take off to the west. VBNC is willing to meet with stakeholders to discuss the site selection process and to consider ways to respond to concerns.

Presenters were concerned that, by the time anyone realized an airstrip was adversely affecting birds in the Gooselands, it might be too late to do anything other than compensate Aboriginal resource users. VBNC described a number of possible mitigation measures, which the Panel considered. One suggestion made during the hearings was to amend the take-off protocol to require pilots to turn left after reaching a safe altitude, thus avoiding the Gooselands. The Panel notes that, to minimize the loss of hunting opportunities, VBNC could severely limit flight activity during prime harvesting periods, even alternating the type of aircraft used during these times. The company could also alter daytime schedules to ensure planes fly during periods when the birds are less active or have flown elsewhere for feeding.

The Panel concludes that the effects of the proposed airstrip site and approach orientation on the Gooselands are uncertain, and that VBNC should therefore use a precautionary approach. Even though time may be limited, VBNC should review the site selection process in consultation with LIA and Environment Canada and gather additional baseline information on how birds use the Gooselands, especially during the spring 1999 arrival of the migratory birds. VBNC should also attempt to document bird behaviour in response to low flying aircraft of the type proposed for the Project. Finally, VBNC should identify all possible mitigation measures that it would use if negative effects became apparent.

The Panel agrees that the proposed site of the airport is reasonable, based on its elevation and distance from critical habitat. The main problem stems from the runway orientation, which allows the airport to operate as a Category 1 airport and requires aircraft to pass over the Gooselands on approach and takeoff. The Panel therefore concludes that the airport can remain in its proposed location, but that it must be subject to certain restrictions until Environment Canada and Aboriginal organizations are satisfied that it is safe to remove those restrictions, based on the results of effects monitoring studies. The Panel believes that, consequently, two options should be open to VBNC.

Recommendation 68

The Panel recommends that, in view of risks to waterfowl habitat and populations, and to the success of Aboriginal harvesting efforts, VBNC should pursue one of the following strategies to develop the airport in its proposed location.

  • It should realign the runway so that aircraft would not fly directly over the Gooselands, and operate the airport as a non-precision approach facility until new landing technology permits it to operate it as a Category 1 facility. or
  • Before constructing and operating the proposed Category 1 airport, it should develop an air traffic management plan, which would include measures - up to and including temporary restriction of flights during critical migratory waterfowl staging periods - to ensure that flights would not unduly disturb waterfowl using the Gooselands or disrupt Aboriginal harvesting. The Plan should include effects monitoring provisions, and VBNC should remove air traffic restrictions only if the results of this monitoring justify doing so. The air traffic management plan should be subject to the review and recommendations of the Environmental Advisory Board.

Should the operation of the airport adversely affect Aboriginal harvesting, VBNC would be required to compensate resource users under the terms of a wildlife harvesting compensation program (see Chapter 14, Aboriginal Land Use and Historical Resources). However, the Panel emphasizes that relying on compensation is not an appropriate strategy, and that the purpose of alternatives identified in Recommendation 68 is to prevent adverse effects on the Gooselands.