Nunavut raises concerns with PMO over toxic rocket splashdown

By Bob Weber


The government of Nunavut has added its voice to protests over European plans to launch a satellite that would drop a rocket stage likely to contain highly toxic fuel in some of the most ecologically sensitive water of the Canadian Arctic.

A spokeswoman for the government of Nunavut has confirmed that territorial officials raised the issue with the Prime Minister’s Office this week after Premier Peter Taptuna expressed concern over the launch, which is scheduled for Friday.

“We are calling on Canada and Denmark to take swift action at the international level to dissuade these activities and move forward with protecting this area locally and internationally,” Taptuna said Oct. 6, the day after Russia notified Canada of its intentions.

The European Space Agency plans to launch the Sentinel 5P satellite, an environmental probe designed to monitor trace gases in the atmosphere. A second launch of a similar satellite is planned for 2018.

Both are to be launched from Russia using Soviet-era rockets fuelled by hydrazine. Hydrazine is so toxic that almost every space program in the world, including Russia’s,  has moved away from it.

The second stage of the rocket, containing up to a tonne of unburned hydrazine, is expected to splash down in water between Greenland and Baffin Island.

That area falls within Canada’s exclusive economic zone and is in the jurisdiction of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.

The North Water Polynya is an 85,000-square-kilometre ocean that is free of ice year-round. It shelters most of the world’s narwhal, as well as about 14,000 beluga whales and 1,500 walrus.

Bowhead whales, polar bears, and four types of seals swim in its waters. Tens of millions of seabirds teem in its skies.

Inuit communities in Canada and Greenland routinely hunt animals that depend on the North Water Polynya.

The government of Canada has not released its response to Nunavut’s concerns.

Global Affairs Canada has previously said that Canada “continues to express concerns to Russia” over potential environmental impacts. It has not said if it has protested to the European Space Agency, of which Canada is an affiliate member.

The agency maintains all the toxic fuel burns up on re-entry.

Academic research points out there has been no study of what happens to fuel released over marine ecosystems. As well, previous studies in Russian launch zones suggest some fuel does reach the water’s surface.

Nunavut acknowledges the risk is low, but argues it shouldn’t be there at all.

“We condemn Russia’s actions and demand that this launch be halted,” said Taptuna. “Our people rely on the marine ecosystem to support our families, communities and livelihoods.”

The Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an organization that represents Inuit around the world, has also protested the satellite launch.


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