An Innovative Water Treatment Plant for the Far North

McCue Engineering Contractors has completed the commissioning of a wastewater treatment system at Mary River Mine, located at the north end of Baffin Island in Nunavut. The site – operated by Baffinland Iron Mines Corporation – sits within the arctic circle at approximately 71.3 degrees north. It is the northernmost operating mine in Canada and one of the northernmost operating mines in the world, alongside mines in Russia and the Svalbard archipelago of Norway.

Because of Mary River Mine’s location, McCue designed, constructed, and operated what may also be the northernmost mine water treatment plant in North America, and perhaps the world.

The remote nature of this site posed unique challenges to the project, so McCue had to find innovative solutions to best serve all of our client’s needs. Because of its arctic location, the mine’s seasonal port is often blocked by sea ice, which typically forms as early as October and can last until July. For most of the year, the Mary River Mine can only be accessed by air using the site’s gravel airstrip.  Because the mine needed an operational water treatment plant before freshet – seasonal melting– the entire system had to be flown to the site before the seaport was open. McCue had to design and build a new water treatment plant that could fit into a 737 aircraft – tanks and all – within a strict schedule.

These circumstances required lots of ingenuity and problem-solving from the whole McCue team. With an office in Delta, a site in Nunavut, and the nearest “local” suppliers in Montreal, everything had to be perfectly planned so that the plant could be completed on time and within these restrictions. 

Components of the water treatment plant were prefabricated in Delta for both efficiency and self-sufficiency. This ensured that any issues or missing parts would be easily dealt with where resources were readily available. If any problems had arisen on site, it could have taken weeks to have something delivered; space on the planes was limited, and items like food had priority so anything less essential might have to be bumped to a later delivery, costing the team valuable time. The crew also planned a shipment of spare parts in case anything broke in transit or if onsite conditions required changes to the plant’s design.

As well as being small enough, these pre-built pieces also had to be light enough to be flown into the site. This distinctive water treatment system was constructed out of plastic pipe and hose, folding plastic tanks, and Unistrut to reduce both weight and space in the aircraft. The pieces were broken down into smaller parts so that they could fit into the plane and be reassembled later. Each piece was meticulously labeled, with a corresponding diagram, and placed in a crate.  Each crate was also meticulously labeled and inventoried so that nothing was misplaced over the long journey. The items were all driven from Delta, BC to Montreal, and then flown to the site on Baffin Island – a journey over 6,000 kilometres by land and air, which is further than the distance from Vancouver to Reykavik, Iceland.

The building used for the water treatment plant was supplied by the client and also had to be flown into the site. It was constructed from inflatable ribs and a heavy fabric cover before our arrival. Because this building could not be used to support piping and wiring, we built stands out of Unistrut to keep piping and instrumentation off the ground.

Prefabrication of system components made the construction at the mine an easier process by limiting the amount of pipe fitting and other work to be completed onsite. This reduced the time required on-site, which helped to reduce strain on our crew and also reduced the overall cost of construction. 

Our crew arrived at the Mary River Mine late in the spring of 2018 – just in time to see the midnight sun after a dark northern winter – to build the system and ensure it was operational before freshet. Thanks to these efficient design and construction systems, construction was within a few weeks of our arrival, and there was a brief break while we waited for the ice to melt before commissioning the project. The system was then commissioned in June, just as the last of the ice was melting, and soon we were in full operation treating water.

Being on the remote site in northern Baffin Island was a unique experience for the crew as well. The multiple camp complexes were connected by a bus to reduce traffic on the site’s roads. The food was great too; each complex had a cafeteria-style kitchen where they served several options for breakfast, dinner, and even dessert, with packed lunches to eat on-shift. Although shifts were long and busy, the crew had time for relaxation onsite as well. Each camp had a common room filled with entertainment: billiards, foosball, board games, musical instruments, books, and a TV just to name a few! Our CEO, Chris McCue, was undefeated at darts and got in some great jam sessions. The crew also worked with Inuit at Mary River Mine and experienced a local culture favourite, eating raw narwhal blubber. If you ever visit Baffin Island, look out for the many McCue baseball hats worn in the area.

The Mary River Mine project is just one example of McCue’s innovation, which is highlighted by the unique system and the fast turnaround times for this water treatment plant. Although we are based in British Columbia, we operate throughout the country, and we pride ourselves on the solutions we come up with to serve even the most remote sites. We are dedicated to providing a full range of services to our clients; McCue designs, builds, operates, and maintains water treatment systems all across Canada.