Renewed fears of megaproject’s potential health impact on Indigenous communities

JOHN’S, NL — Newfoundland and Labrador’s premier will take the stand at the Muskrat Falls inquiry this week, amid renewed fears about the potential health impacts of methylmercury contamination downstream from the hydro megaproject.

The concerns have been repeatedly raised over the last few weeks in question period at the House of Assembly and at the inquiry into the dam’s cost overruns, where Premier Dwight Ball is scheduled to take the witness stand Thursday.

The nearly complete, $12.7-billion dam will harness Labrador’s lower Churchill River to provide electricity to the province as well as Nova Scotia through subsea cables.

But research has indicated that flooding the uncleared reservoir near the dam could cause a spike in methylmercury contamination in wild food sources used by local Indigenous communities.

Methylmercury is formed as vegetation rots under water and can contaminate fish and other crucial wild foods.

Residents have long expressed fears over the risks, and those fears have resurfaced after the inquiry heard evidence that time has run out for any proposed mitigation work in the reservoir area before full flooding this summer.

A Liberal cabinet minister was grilled on the stand on Thursday over what inquiry co-counsel called a government failure to address the concerns — suggesting the Liberal premier, who has repeatedly called Muskrat Falls an inherited problem, may have to prepare for similarly tough questions.

Fears over possible contamination have sparked protests and a demonstration at the dam site that lead to more than a dozen arrests in October 2016. A subsequent meeting between Ball and Indigenous leaders concluded with the establishment of an independent expert advisory committee to monitor the project.

In April 2018, three out of four voting members of the committee recommended that Nalcor Energy _ the provincial Crown corporation overseeing Muskrat Falls _ “undertake targeted removal of soil and capping of wetlands” before the reservoir area was fully flooded.

Now, some water has already flooded the area as the project nears completion. Impoundment — or full flooding of the reservoir site — is set to take place between mid-July and late September, according to Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall.

The premier, who was re-elected on May 16, has cited regular surveys of water and sediment that indicate methylmercury levels are still safe, saying the issue is a priority for his government.

Ball met with Labrador Indigenous leaders on June 11, and requested feedback on a draft terms of reference for a Muskrat Falls methylmercury health oversight committee to monitor the levels going forward.

Ball’s critics, like PC member Lela Evans from Labrador, say the government has been too slow to mitigate any future impacts on the food sources Labrador Inuit and other residents depend on.

“The issue of methylmercury mitigation was never taken seriously by this Liberal government. With a revolving door of ministers in Municipal Affairs and Environment they procrastinated making the decision until it was too late, it’s now too late,” Evans said in the House of Assembly on June 26.

The issue had been thrown back into the province’s political spotlight a week earlier on June 20, when a panel of government officials appeared at the Muskrat Falls inquiry with evidence suggesting time had indeed run out to take further preventative measures on methylmercury.

The inquiry saw a memo from consulting firm SNC-Lavalin, emailed to the province’s deputy environment minister on Feb. 13, indicating work to “cap” vegetation should have taken place before the start of 2019, making it now too late to carry out the work.

“This review has found that it is not feasible to undertake the capping in the five months available between end of January 2019 and the start of the freshet,” the report read, citing the risk of landslides, the tight timeline and the lack of planning and available materials.

The memo was based on a March 2018 report that assumed there would be time to plan and carry out the work. It also said it would be “impossible” to carry out the work after impoundment.

This evidence was put before Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady by inquiry co-counsel Barry Learmonth last Thursday.

Learmonth spoke to the passionate testimony from other witnesses about the risks such contamination would pose to Labrador residents’ way of life.

“I suggest to you that there’s been a failure by government, I’m not talking about you personally, but a failure by government to properly, responsibly and in good faith address the legitimate concerns of the Indigenous groups,” Learmonth said to Coady.

“If there is, I do not think it’s deliberate,” the minister responded.

Coady cited the relatively low impact capping would have on mitigating methylmercury contamination, and said she understands people’s concerns. She said her government has sincerely tried to address the problem but couldn’t say why the decision on capping had been left so late.

“I understand the passion and I understand the concern, and it would have been helpful if there had been a different outcome here,” she said. “But I cannot tell you why the decision wasn’t made until January of 2019.”

The dam was sanctioned by a former Progressive Conservative government in 2012.

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