(Land protectors in Goose Bay sit outside Premier Dwight Balls’ office)
APTN National News
The premier of Newfoundland and Labrador announced Wednesday that water levels at the hydro dam under construction at Muskrat Falls will be lowered.
That was a key promise in a deal brokered with Indigenous leaders last fall that ended protests and a hunger strike. The deal called for the release of water from the reservoir in the spring, to reduce the risk of methylmercury.
Denise Cole, an Inuit land protector, said Premier Dwight Ball’s announcement on the first day of summer is a good start, but not good enough.
“It’s shameful that it took the pressure of the two Inuit Indigenous leaders along with the public to get them to take action and do what they agreed to last fall,” said Cole.
Nalcor Energy, a provincially-owned corporation in charge of building the hydroelectric site to the west of Happy Valley Goose Bay said it had to flood the reservoir over the winter to protect infrastructure at the dam.
On June 12, it posted an update that the water wouldn’t be released until mid-July.
A study by Harvard University in 2015 indicated that trees and topsoil left to decompose in the reservoir when it’s flooded will create methylmercury. The naturally-occurring toxin could contaminate traditional food sources downstream.
While trees may not decompose in cold winter waters, Cole worries that could happen as the weather warms and wants to what’s being done to monitor methylmercury.
“If they’re concerned about the health and safety of people downstream,” said Cole, “they have to stop working and start investigating.”
Another part of the province’s deal with Indigenous leaders was to form an Independent Expert Advisory Committee to look at the issues around methylmercury and how to mitigate its impact.
But there’s been little word on the status of the committee to date. Cole said it’s unacceptable that it’s taken this long to get the committee up and running.
“Government has to be accountable to get that committee up and running and tells us the terms of reference. Tell us who’s on it. And tell us their timeline,” said Cole. “And stop the project until the work is mitigated around methylmercury.”
The premier’s office has indicated recently that the committee is in place and is waiting for Indigenous leaders to pick someone as chair.
Todd Russell, president of the NunatuKavut Community Council represents Southern Inuit in Labrador.
“The terms of references have been agreed to, the resources are committed. For some weeks, there’s been a number of names for a possible chair,” said Russell. “Some of those people have either had other commitments or weren’t willing.”
He said there is a person ready for the position, but the committee isn’t releasing the name yet.
“But we’re in a place now the committee can begin its work,” said Russell. “That’s very important.”
He expects an announcement on the specific details soon.
“In very broad terms,” said Russell, “the committee is comprised of an oversight committee, a chair and then a scientific committee comprised of experts in methylmercury and combining that with Indigenous knowledge experts.”
Cole would like to see the project halted while the committee gathers information on methylmercury.
But Russell said that’s not likely.
“It’s highly improbable to stop a project in the middle of a construction phases,” he said. “It was never the intent of the agreement. It was understood the committee would operate concurrently with construction.”
Russell calls the very existence of the committee precedent-setting.
“We’re not aware of any project of this nature that has gotten now an independent science committee looking at health impacts, in the midst of construction,” he said. “If it works properly, if everyone is committed, then this can have some real lasting positive impacts.”
Meanwhile, land protectors continue to protest. Since Monday, a group has gathered outside the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs building in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, restricting access of government employees to their offices.
Cole said they want answers from the premier, not just on methylmercury. The group is also calling for a forensic audit of Nalcor Energy and an independent review of stability issues at an area of the dam called the North Spur.
This weekend, land protectors plan to head back to the Muskrat Falls site and re-establish the camp that was set up across the road from the main gate where the bulk of protests and rallies took place last fall.