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Concern and suspicion grow as green light looms for Muskrat Falls

By: | November 17, 2012

As the megaproject’s sanctioning and a loan guarantee from Ottawa seem ever more imminent, a province-wide grassroots movement begins to swell.

Concern over Muskrat Falls is mounting across the province as Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale maintains a loan guarantee from Ottawa is nearly finalized and the House of Assembly readies for its first sitting of the fall session on Nov. 19.

Amidst considerable public debate in the media, a batch of newly released government reports that favour the hydro-electric megaproject and a government-funded half-million dollar public relations campaign in support of its development, a growing number of residents in Labrador and on the Island are voicing their opposition to the process through which the future of Muskrat Falls is being determined, the project all together, or both.

A side-effect of the growing opposition to the process and the project is a grassroots mobilization of civil society on a scale that hasn’t been seen in the province for some time.

Community groups are surfacing around the province and online via blogs, Facebook and other web sites (like this one, this one and this one). They are calling for various reforms to the process, including extensive research on developing cleaner renewable energy resources, a Public Utilities Board review which considers new information that has recently come to light, a special debate on Muskrat Falls in the legislature, a provincial referendum on the $7.2 billion project, and a repeal of Bill 29, which made sweeping changes to the province’s access to information laws last June.

On Nov. 18 one of those groups, the People’s Assembly Newfoundland and Labrador, will lead a public demonstration in St. John’s while Labrador organizers hold rallies and boil-ups of their own in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and St. Lewis. On its Facebook event page, the People’s Assembly says it would “like to see democracy restored to the NL political process.”

People demonstrate near the Muskrat Falls construction site Sept. 3, 2012. Photo by Denise Cole.

The dam’s biggest proponents — the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nalcor Energy, the provincial crown corporation that will oversee the project’s project’s ongoing development — don’t think there’s much to debate: Muskrat Falls should go ahead. They have repeatedly told the news media it is economically viable and cleaner than the oil-burning Holyrood thermal generating station.

At the St. John’s Convention Centre Wednesday evening Dunderdale reaffirmed her confidence in the project’s potential during a speech to 600 supporters at an annual PC fundraiser dinner.

“Developing Muskrat Falls power means we are investing in an asset that will not only provide a stable source of energy for consumers, businesses and new industries for generations to come, but we’ll also generate revenue and open the door to new investment and new growth,” she said.

Speaking to a business crowd in Corner Brook recently, Nalcor President and CEO Ed Martin also stood firm in his support for the project. “The future is just fantastic once you get the transmission issues knocked off, because you’re sitting next to some of the biggest markets in the world. [There is] huge export potential, and together if we get this right for the grandchildren the numbers are just exciting.”

A nagging skepticism

While many say they’ve heard enough to form an opinion on the project, others argue the government’s approach to the issue suggests there could be important information being kept from public view, which they say should be setting off alarm bells. In June the Tories, enabled by their majority, pushed through controversial new legislation that severely limits the public and media’s access to information.

The government launched this website (www.powerinourhands.ca) as part of its public relations strategy to advocate for Muskrat Falls.

“Our position is that the biggest problem with the Muskrat Falls issue has been the process,” said Jon Parsons, an organizer for the People’s Assembly, at a Nov. 8 town hall assembly coordinated by the provincial NDP. “This is an issue that has been thrust upon people, and there’s been no authentic input requested from the bottom, there’s been no debate, there’s been no Public Utilities Board review (and) a veil of secrecy has been thrown over much of Newfoundland politics by Bill 29,” he told the applauding crowd of about 100.

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador also launched a publicity campaign late last month to appease growing concern over the project, then subsequently released a series of government reports (like this onethis onethis one and this one) supporting the project.

“I am extremely suspicious when a government tells me that I am going to like something, spends $500,000 on a glossy flyer and puts out a TV ad to convince me,” St. John’s resident Angela Record announced at the Muskrat Falls town hall event last week. “I’m very suspicious. Personally, I would far rather that money be spent on further analysis on alternate energy sources, or even an analysis of the current energy source.”

“This is not about a resource, it’s about people”

For people in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, which sits along the banks of the Lower Churchill River (‘Grand River’ or ‘Mistashipu’ to locals) about 25 km downstream from Muskrat Falls, the implications of another hydro dam on their river hit much closer to home.

“I find there’s a lack of information out there. People really have no idea of what the impact will be of this river being dammed,” Debbie Michelin, a resident of Goose Bay and member of the Grand River Keepers and Friends of Grand River/Mistashipu, told The Independent last week.

“This is not about a resource, it’s about people,” she continued. “We have lived here for hundreds of years. Our ancestors were born here, raised here, they trapped here, lived a traditional life here, (and were) buried here. My son was buried on the banks of that river, I’m going to be buried on the banks of that river. This is very deeply personal for us … we live next to this river.”

“My son was buried on the banks of that river, I’m going to be buried on the banks of that river. This is very deeply personal for us…we live next to this river.”   – Labrador resident Debbie Michelin

Michelin was also critical of how the government has managed public discourse around the project to this point, saying if it facilitated a more inclusive and transparent process – rather than what she feels is merely giving the impression that it’s doing so – Muskrat Falls could be adequately scrutinized by the public.

“I think the Government of Newfoundland is doing everything in its power to stop any kind of voice that is not pro-Muskrat Falls, and I think that it’s gonna be destructive in the end because we need to hear all positions,” she said. “And if it really is a project that’s good, that’s feasible, that’s viable and economically sustainable, good for the environment and for the people, it should stand on its own merit, you know, and people should be for it.”

The media and the message

Dennis Woodrow Burden, a resident of Port Hope Simpson who has taken part in protests at the Muskrat Falls construction site and on the steps of Confederation Building in St. John’s, says he’s disappointed in how the media has also downplayed local opposition to the project.

“I called the media, ‘cause I figured if you get in front of the media and tell ‘em my story, how I felt about what’s going on, and get that message out there, we might be able to get some help,” he told The Independent last week. “But the media, they turns away from this stuff – they don’t wanna hear it. It was really hard for me to stand there in front of that camera and spill my guts, but they just give you five seconds and then they talk about a pot hole on George Street or some other thing that makes the news these days that, really, nobody wants to hear anyway.”

Though the project has not been sanctioned, construction is going ahead at the site, much to the demise of locals who oppose the project and are running out of options to protect their land, Burden said.

“They’re down there tearing the land to pieces, b’y, spending half a million, a million dollars a day goin’ (ahead) with the project, and the taxpayers is footin’ the bill.

Construction has begun at the Muskrat Falls site even though the project has not been sanctioned. Photo by Denise Cole.

“We’re not seeing much (of the construction) because we’re barred out. You’re not allowed inside the gates. They got a guard out there … you can’t even get in there,” he continued. “The (NunatuKavut Community Council) got a chopper a while back and got some pictures. And there was lots of stuff there goin’ on environmental-wise, I mean crossing rivers with their big tractors and excavators and everything, back and forth across the brooks and old bridges. I mean, that should be reason enough there for someone to shut this down.”

The People’s Assembly has been generating support from people and groups in St. John’s who are opposed to the process or the project all together. On Thursday the group released a new song and video from one of its supporters, Con O’Brien of The Irish Descendants. “‘Renewable’ and ‘DG3′ the buzzwords all abound / The people’s outcry for review fall on deaf ears in our town / No need for the PUB, MHI will have to do / We have Nalcor and its experts, sure you know it must be true,” O’Brien sings in one of the song’s verses.

The size and efficacy of Sunday’s demonstration in St. John’s may hinge on whether many feel the issue is important enough to take personal or professional risks. “One thing that really scares me is how many people I talk to about the project who don’t actually have the freedom to speak out about it,” Denise Hennebury of St. John’s told The Independent last week. “They feel it’s going to be a career-limiting move basically, if they speak out about it. And especially if they think this project is going to go ahead anyway, being on the side who’s saying we don’t believe it should go ahead, then that’s going to be problematic.”

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