Natural resources

Muskrat Falls hydro project sparks protests, arrests in Newfoundland and Labrador

Demonstrators fear food contamination, question dam safety
Justin Brake - The Independent

Nine people, who have since been released, were arrested near the Muskrat Falls reservoir site Monday morning, CBC reported. About 20 people also, as one demonstrator described it, "shut down" the provincial Department of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Monday. In St. John's, protestors demonstrated outside the Confederation Building, reported the Telegram. According to the legislative reporter of St. John's radio station VOCM, security accidentally broke a pane of glass while preventing a protester from entering the building's washroom.

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Construction of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which would involve the damming of rivers, flooding of large swathes of land and potential contamination of the local food supply with a dangerous neurotoxin, has provoked significant local and even international opposition. Amnesty International first flagged concerns with the project last year, and other international groups have questioned the impact on Indigenous peoples in the area.

A VOCM journalist was also reportedly denied access to an indoor sit-in. Gerry Rogers, an NDP MHA representing part of St. John's, tweeted that people protesting the flooding and seeking a meeting with the premier or a representative, were "peacefully occupying [the] foyer" and she later brought pizza to demonstrators, VOCM reported. Gerry Lynn Mackey, also with VOCM, reported that demonstrators in St. John's lowered flags to half-mast.

Indigenous people have come to this section of the Churchill River, located directly above Muskrat Falls, for thousands of years. Archeological evidence shows it was a common resting spot. When the dam goes online, this area will be flooded.
Ossie Michelin

The Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which has dominated Newfoundland and Labrador's political discussion in recent years, has long been controversial. Meant to meet the province's electricity needs and produce surplus electricity for sale to external markets, doubts about the project's financial wisdom have grown in many circles to the point where some are now calling for a complete rejection of the project. The project's costs have risen as oil prices, on which the province's revenue now depends, collapsed, while problems of legitimacy and calls for a referendum have been ignored.

Speaking Monday in Ottawa, Liberal MP for Labrador Yvonne Jones, who is also parliamentary secretary for Indigenous affairs, said she has asked government house leader Dominic LeBlanc for a review of the permit issued to Nalcor, the provincial Crown corporation overseeing the project, reported APTN.

A dangerous neurotoxin in the food supply

Protesters in Labrador and St. John's are motivated by concern about methylmercury, a neurotoxin that accumulates in wildlife. The government of Nunatsiavut, the self-governing Inuit region of Labrador, worrying about the risk to the safety of their food supply, wants complete clearing of topsoil and vegetation at the Muskrat Falls reservoir site. A Harvard study, conducted after the Nunatsiavut government reached out to faculty there, has highlighted possible impacts.

“We know that flooding will result in elevated methylmercury levels in the river and the fish that live in the river.”

The provincial government said in a June press release that is is "accepting Nalcor’s Human Health Risk Assessment Plan" but plans to offer compensation if consumption advisories become necessary. Separately, there is concern about the safety and structural integrity of the project’s North Spur dam site and inadequate emergency planning for a dam break.

Ryan Calder, a PhD candidate with the Harvard Department of Environmental Health and co-author of their study, told Ricochet on Monday night that it is hard to know the exact impact that not completely clearing the reservoir site will have on methylmercury levels.

"All the evidence suggests that the more you clear, the better it will be, the lower the impacts will be," Calder said. "We know that flooding will result in elevated methylmercury levels in the river and the fish that live in the river. No one is denying that."

"Nalcor has been saying that the impacts on the downstream environment … would stop at the outfall of the Churchill River. [We] elucidated the mechanisms that control cycling of methylmercury in Lake Melville and showed that, actually, freshwater inputs into Lake Melville are very important, especially in the low-salinity layer. And that elevated methylmercury levels in the Churchill River [are] likely to have a meaningful impact in the Lake Melville food web as well. That, I think, contradicts Nalcor's [original] statements."

Calder went on to explain the mechanism of accumulation.

"I'm totally opposed to it environmentally, financially and the fact that they're just doing this — 83 of the people in our territory said no to this project.

"It will increase in the food web. We know that there's widespread consumption of local foods. Even dietary studies carried out by Nalcor have shown that people in the downstream communities eat local food. Putting two and two together, there's no question that exposures will increase."

"They know that people, Indigenous people and other people, consume fish from the river. So, of course, exposures will increase if the methylmercury levels go up because [they] are eating the fish."

Blockade leads to arrests

In response to a request for an interview, Nalcor forwarded a statement that has also been provided to other media. It said that Nalcor "has subsequently undertaken additional water quality monitoring and we are working with both governments on this program [and] will continue to work with the Provincial Government and all stakeholders on this important topic."

Jim Learning from Happy Valley-Goose Bay told Ricochet on Monday night that the group of protestors was served with an injunction not long after he arrived at the reservoir site at about 4:40 a.m. ADT.

Explaining he couldn't live with himself if he didn't put up a fight, Jim Learning, a 77-year-old NunatuKavut Elder, says so far he's been to at least four protests and spent a week in jail.
Ossie Michelin

"We were advised by the police officers that the injunction was served against us and that we would have to move away from the gates. There was about 12 or 14 of us there at that time so we discussed it for a little bit and bantered it back and forth and dragged our feet and delayed. And then the Nalcor buses began showing up and the Nalcor officials looking to see that their gate was cleared, as per the injunction, but that was not happening right then. So the police hurried up to get us out of the way and right away they said 'go or we'll arrest.'"

Learning then described the arrests.

"So a couple of the girls said, 'No, we're not going.' At that point they grabbed the first two girls, hustled them over to the paddywagon, then they grabbed a third girl, then another guy, then a couple of more people and hustled them all into the wagon. The rest of us, we dragged our feet. We didn't go quickly, but we went. And we were instructed to go clear to the other side of the road and onto a little path that they have there as a free zone."

Learning said there was subsequent chanting from protesters and shouting between the protesters and the Nalcor officials, precipitating another arrest. Learning said that the protester was screaming but was in the safe zone when the officer "charged into the crowd and grabbed her."

Justin Brake of TheIndependent.ca captured part of this scene on video.

Learning said he has been arrested multiple times but remains steadfast in his opposition.

"My stake in this is that it's a terrible project, that people can't afford it. The territory doesn't need it. There's no power for the territory of Labrador," he said, highlighting the question of who benefits and loses financially, as well as safety issues at North Spur. "The Newfoundland government will be subsidizing Nova Scotia power for the next 30 years [or so]," he said.

"The North Spur's a threat to the downstream people and especially the community of Mud Lake. That little community is within 40 minutes of being totally destroyed and washed away by whatever tsunami kick-up there is coming from that reservoir, should the North Spur fail."

"I'm totally opposed to it environmentally, financially and the fact that they're just doing this — 83 of the people in our territory said no to this project. They had 59 submissions to the JRP, the joint review panel, that did the hearings on this. They submitted over 71 issues that Nalcor should have fixed. Very few were dealt with. And we were just discounted, not even considered. They basically walked over us. It's a matter of pride with me, it's a matter of environmental destruction, and we can't afford it."

The group Solidarity with Labrador is asking Canadians to phone and email provincial MHAs, contact Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Dwight Ball, sign Amnesty Canada's petition and donate to help transport supporters to the Muskrat Falls site.

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