Inuit upset about Russian rocket splashdown in Arctic waters
by Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
On April 25, a Russian rocket bearing a European environmental monitoring satellite is set to launch. The second stage of the rocket, containing a toxic fuel called hydrazine, is expected to fall into the waters of Baffin Bay
IQALUIT—An international Inuit group is angry they weren’t informed that a rocket stage likely containing highly toxic fuel is set to splash down in waters they routinely hunt for food.
Okalik Eegeesiak, of the Inuit Circumpolar Commission, said both the federal government and the European Space Agency again failed to inform Inuit in Canada and Greenland about the falling debris.
“Again, we had no knowledge of this and were not included in what is happening in our areas. Our communities are hearing through the media about what is happening.”
On Wednesday, a Russian rocket bearing a European environmental monitoring satellite is scheduled to launch. The second stage of the rocket is expected to fall into the waters of Baffin Bay, outside Canada’s territorial waters but within its exclusive economic zone as well as the purview of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act.
The rocket is a repurposed Soviet-era SS-19 ballistic missile, fuelled by hydrazine. Hydrazine is highly carcinogenic and so toxic nearly every space program in the world has moved away from it.
However, the old SS-19s are economically attractive, said Michael Byers, a professor of international law who has studied the issue.
“These are leftover from the Cold War,” he said. “They’re free as a result.”
The second stage of an SS-19 could have as much as a tonne of leftover hydrazine when it hits the waves.
Officials with the agency say the fuel burns up before it hits the Earth. But studies at Russian launch sites have reached different conclusions.
Eegeesiak points out the stage will fall into the North Water Polynya, the most productive and biodiverse place in the Arctic seas. Whales, seals, polar bears and walrus are found there in large numbers and Inuit from both Canada and Greenland hunt frequently there.
“When the weather is clear, they go out for the chance of coming back with lunch and dinner,” she said. “(We’ve) been very concerned about cumulative impacts these launches will have on our communities and food sources.”
There have been 11 such splashdowns over the past 15 years and Inuit have protested them before. That Wednesday’s launch was again scheduled without letting local people know mocks federal promises of Indigenous consultation, Eegeesiak said.
“We don’t see it here,” she said. “Protection of marine waters is also not evident here.”
Canada is an associate member of the European Space Agency and routinely contributes more than $20 million a year to its budget. That, say federal documents, “allows Canada to be part of the (agency’s) decision-making process.”
Eegeesiak said she doesn’t see any evidence Canada was using that influence to protect Inuit interests.
“We are expressing our frustration,” she said.
The splashdown waters are so important that Inuit from Canada and Greenland have been meeting to develop a joint plan for the area.
“We’d like to lead the management of the area,” said Eegeesiak. “We’d like to work with our respective governments to push for no rocket launches into the area.”
The federal government did not reply to a request for comment.