APTN National News
The hunger strike is over and Innu and Inuit leaders are celebrating after reaching an agreement on the controversial Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador.
At 2 am Newfoundland time Wednesday, the leaders emerged from their 10 hour meeting with Newfoundland and Labrador’s Premier Dwight Ball after hashing out concerns over how best to address the health impacts associated with the Muskrat Falls dam.
“The decisions that will be made going forward will not be at the whim of government,” said NunatuKavut Community Council President Todd Russell. “They will be made by science. And it will incorporate the traditional knowledge of our people. This is a huge step forward.”
Russell, along with Grand Chief of the Innu Nation Anastasia Quepee, and President of the Nunatsiavut Government Johannes Lampe were all confident in the deal reached with the province.
“This development is in the heart of our Innu land claim area and is extremely important to the Innu,” said Quepee. “We’ve reached an agreement that will protect the health of our people and our environment.”
Since the project was announced, there has been a concern about the health impacts caused by the dam.
That concern was validated by a Harvard study published over a year ago that showed levels of methylmercury, a neuro-toxin that develops over time when vegetation and topsoil are mixed with water, would contaminate traditional food sources downstream when the dams reservoir was flooded.
Part of the agreement calls on the province to set up an independent expert advisory committee that will look at evidence-based approaches for mitigating the impacts of methylmercury on human health.
“This will be guided by, made up of, provincial, federal, municipal, and indigenous groups,” said Premier Ball. “Decisions will be based using science-based research. This will dictate all decisions going forward.”
According to a release from the province, the three Labrador leaders were provided with a number of engineering reports and Nalcor will take the flooding one step at a time.
“The three leaders will immediately undertake to have the reports independently reviewed within days,” said the release. “If independent assessment confirms the timing and rationale of initial impoundment, water levels will be raised to the minimum acceptable level. Following initial impoundment, Nalcor will release water from the reservoir in the spring of 2017 to its natural flow, as ordered by the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador. This will facilitate the opportunity for additional mitigation measures, which may include clearing trees, vegetation and/or soil from the reservoir.
Russell called the developments “significant” and “meaningful.”
“The way hydro projects will develop in the future has changed because of what we have agreed upon here today,” said Russell. “It is unprecedented that mitigation measures will not solely rest within the purview of provincial or federal regulator. It will shift to include independent science and the recommendations they make.”
Premier Ball did not relate the concessions made to Inuit and Innu leaders with the ongoing protests.
But both Russell and Lampe did. They gave credit to the work of the land protectors who have rallied and even now continue to occupy the Muskrat Falls camp, effectively having shut down work on the multi-billion dollar project for the last five days.
However, Lampe’s message now to land protectors inside the site or outside the gates at Muskrat Falls, “Go home.”
As news of the deal broke in the early hours, the three hunger strikers who took their battle over Muskrat Falls to Ottawa, celebrated. Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kolhmeister had pledged not to eat until steps were taken to address the impacts of methylmercury.
Labrador Inuit, Elder Jim Learning, a long-time activist battling various concerns over the Muskrat Falls project accompanied Russell to the meetings in St. John’s.
He said the focus was very much on issues around methylmercury and the steps agreed to have allayed many of his concerns. But nothing has been done to address stability issues with a section of the dam called the North Spur.
“It’s a dam built on water and quick clay, that’s what makes that dangerous,” said Learning. “If a bank slips away and the river comes roaring down at you now you have no choice. It’s a potential killer. That’s what the north spur is.”
“We don’t like what you signed on to. That’s the bottom line,” said Learning.
Land protectors he spoke with early Wednesday morning weren’t impressed with the agreement.
“They didn’t like it and aren’t going to put up with it. We’re not buying into this, to hell with you guys, you can make all the deals you want. We’re staying on the gate,” said learning.
The land protectors who are occupying Nalcor’s construction offices say they are coming out of the gates this morning.