$11.4 billion later and counting, Labrador’s controversial hydroelectric dam has done irreversible damage, say three locals who traveled up the Grand River to Muskrat Falls Wednesday. But the reservoir isn’t flooded yet.
On Wednesday NunatuKavut Elder Jim Learning and riverkeeper Eldred Davis visited Muskrat Falls to protest the the controversial hydro dam being constructed on Indigenous lands and to investigate reports that salmon trying to swim upstream were trapped on the construction site.
The two traveled up the river by boat and walked on to the site to locate a body of water between two berms where they say they were told earlier this week six to seven salmon were trapped. They also expressed their discontent to workers over the continued destruction of the Grand River—also known as Mista Shipu to the Innu and renamed the Churchill River by the Newfoundland government in 1965.
“This is disgusting. This is not engineering — this is destruction at its worst. For no reason,” Learning, a vocal critic of the project, told a Barnard Pennecon worker who approached the pair as they attempted to peer down between the two berms.
The water between the berms was too murky to see if there were any fish present. A spokesperson for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans later told The Independent that department officials visited the site on Wednesday but did not observe any fish. The spokesperson could not confirm if the officials did more than observe the water from land as Learning and Davis had.
In its environmental impact statement for the project Nalcor claimed “[a]nadromous Atlantic salmon do not occur above Muskrat Falls.” But Davis said locals have known for years that salmon migrate up the river.
“We just come to have a look and see how much destruction you’ve done here,” Learning told the worker. “But it will beat you, it will beat you. You have no chance against this river, none,” he said, referring to the power of the river relative to the stability of the North Spur, whose integrity some engineers have expressed concern over.
In a Sept. 12 article published on Uncle Gnarly, a blog run by Newfoundland and Labrador political commentator Des Sullivan, retired engineer James Gordon outlined why he feels Crown energy corporation Nalcor and the provincial government are taking a huge risk in anchoring part of the dam to the North Spur.
Gordon, who has won awards for his contributions to hydroelectric engineering, claims that the North Spur at Muskrat Falls may not be safe since “safety factors developed for dams on non-marine clays cannot be applied to dams on marine clays,” that “there has been no research into the stability of dams founded on marine clays,” and that “there is no precedent for a dam founded on a soft clay foundation with the steep slopes shown for the North Spur.”
Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk, skipper of the boat that brought Learning and Davis to the construction site, said he fears Nalcor and the provincial government are putting the lives of the roughly 60 people in his village at risk in light of the uncertainty around the North Spur. He’s also concerned about the impact the changes in water salinity might have on the Lower Grand River.
Once the dam is flooded, he said, “the brackish water is going to come in to wherever there was freshwater in the past, so we don’t know what effect that’s going to have. Is that going to get into our drinking water? Is it going to affect the fish? We have no idea, and neither do they.”
To me that really hurt, to see our history being erased… — Craig Chaulk
Chaulk said the dam’s construction has also destroyed an old portage route that local families used in the fall to trap animals and forage berries.
“Our heritage is the trapping heritage here — that’s how everybody subsisted and made a living before the base came here in the 1940s,” he said. “I found it very hard to observe, the first I came here once they started to work on (the dam), them just erasing our history. To me that really hurt, to see our history being erased with no explanation, no forewarning, nothing.”
After a Barnard Pennecon supervisor arrived Learning explained to the two workers that there are several tributary rivers flowing into or out of the Grand River and that those bodies of water would all be affected too.
“This is your paycheck, but it’s our bill,” he told them. “Ultimately to live here will be our bill. When that money from your paycheck’s gone we’ll still be paying the bill, our children and grandchildren will be paying the bill… What you’re doing is not right.”
“Wasn’t it your own band that agreed and signed this treaty?” the first worker asked Learning, who is a member of the NunatuKavut Community Council, which represents the Inuit of Southern Labrador and has also opposed the dam on various grounds.
The worker was referring to the controversial New Dawn Agreement, however, a land claim Innu leaders signed with Canada in 2008 which entailed the relinquishment of Innu rights to the land and waters around the Muskrat Falls site.
“No, it wasn’t our band that did that,” Learning said, upset at the comment. “You don’t pick one group of people in a territory and decide you’ve covered the whole territory — that’s just wrong.”
Learning said he suspects that like many residents in Newfoundland and Labrador, some members of the Innu communities who initially supported Muskrat Falls did not have a full appreciation for the significance of the damage the dam is expected to cause to local traditional foods and the Indigenous communities’ way of life.
“Nobody signs on to an agreement to agree to be poisoned,” he told the Barnard Pennecon worker.
Elder Elizabeth Penashue has been one of the most vocal opponents to the dam within the Innu communities. In 2014 she asked Nalcor’s permission to visit Muskrat Falls, where her parents took her on hunting and trapping expeditions in the woods when she was a child — but the Crown corporation said no.
“I want to say goodbye,” she told The Independent in an interview at the time. “This is my last walk and I want to see [the falls one] last time.”
Moments later a Nalcor worker arrived and asked Learning and Davis to leave the site.
“Right now you are trespassing and causing mischief,” he said.
“We’re not trespassing; we’ve been coming here for a long time,” Learning replied. “You’ve come here with this mess, instigated by Danny Williams, who has the principles of a rock and the morals of an alleycat, who decides he’s going to push this through.
“Now you’re here in hardhats while the people downstream in Mud Lake have to go to sleep after this is built waiting to be blown out of their beds by the failure of that North Spur.”
“You’re going to have to leave right now, because it is an active construction site, for your own safety,” the Nalcor worker responded. “And you’re on Nalcor property.”
Learning and Davis contemplated remaining on site, told the Nalcor employee he was free to call the authorities, and then decided to leave.
Aboard the boat Learning told The Independent he feels “there’s no real purpose” for the project, and that it’s “destroying the environment and pouring money into something that will never be anything.
“If they can’t be assured that this is absolutely safe, they’re rolling the dice on the people downstream,” he said.
Learning also said the projected increases in methylmercury “[threatens] a thousands of years food source that was always considered safe.
“No so anymore,” he said. “Methylmercury is a neurotoxin which will affect the nervous system of unborn babies…and these people who perpetrate this mess here are totally responsible.”
Karen O’Neill, a spokesperson for Nalcor, told The Independent in an email later in the day that “effects relating to methylmercury production have been and continue to be important considerations for the Muskrat Falls Project, and methylmercury was identified as an important matter from before the earliest days of the project’s environmental assessment.
Nalcor will “continue to monitor levels as long as necessary beyond construction of the project, and continue to share the results of our programs with the public as they become available,” she said.
Davis, who says he was born and raised on the banks of the river, called electricity generated from hydro dams “a farce”.
“It means sacrificing rivers and causing untold damage to the oceans. The oceans are currently in a state of crisis because fish species are disappearing daily, and the mitigation would be to try and restore [them],” he continued. “Instead the powers that be have decided to just make it ever worse.”
In the wake of reports from workers who Learning says have told him they’ve observed salmon trapped on site, Davis said Nalcor “lied black and blue that no fish can [travel beyond] Muskrat Falls. And of course we all knew that that was a lie, but they stuck with it and it gives them justification for not building a fish ladder; and it also is a hurdle that they had to overcome in order to convince people that this fiasco is viable.”
The dam “was never really researched competently, people were paid to say what they said, and the fact is now that most of the money—maybe half of the money—has been spent, they’re coming up against these hurdles, and the basics were never properly looked at,” Davis continued.
These people are willingly and knowingly planning to put a neurotoxin into the food supply of people downstream. And they’re ok with that? — Eldred Davis
Davis also said the provincial government and Nalcor gambled on Muskrat Falls with respect to the legal challenge by Hydro-Quebec over the Water Management Agreement for the Upper Churchill Falls.
“They took a gamble, as their new CEO says—Stan Marshall—and they lost,” Davis said. “Everything is going against it and still they persist in keeping this monstrosity going. It just defies logic. It doesn’t make any sense to anybody, except the multi-millionaires and billionaires who are adding to their bank accounts, and I see no other reason to keep this thing going.
“They made all kinds of claims that proved to be bogus,” he continued. “If they have valid numbers, let’s see them. They’ve never let the public look at them. I don’t think the Government of Newfoundland is even allowed to look at Nalcor’s books, is the monster behind all this. Nobody can explain the logic of it. And the fact that they’re up to $11.4 billion and counting daily — it could go to $15 or $20 billion, and for what?”
Muskrat Falls, he said, “might never provide any economical power. It destroys a river. These people are willingly and knowingly planning to put a neurotoxin into the food supply of people downstream. And they’re ok with that? It’s just against the laws of humanity, isn’t it? They should not be allowed to do this. It’s just unexplainable. I know a few people are making money out of this, but there comes a time when money is not everything. We need to stop this.”
Learning said continuing the project “goes up against what is the moral, ethical and integral values that we hold dear.
“When the rule of law can be overwritten by bad legislation that takes away all safety factors that threatens us as this project does, there’s something wrong with the law. The law is not right,” he continued. “And of course this creates a disrespect for law that I think is very healthy, because this should all be struck down.”
Learning has previously been arrested for exercising his Aboriginal rights and resisting the Muskrat Falls development.
In December 2012 he was arrested after walking into the woods on the Muskrat Falls site and setting traps with his brother John and another local elder, Ken Mesher.
When the rule of law can be overwritten by bad legislation that takes away all safety factors that threatens us as this project does, there’s something wrong with the law. — Jim Learning
Then in April 2013 Learning and seven others—mostly Southern Labrador Inuit and members of the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC), including NCC President and former Liberal MP Todd Russell—were arrested after asserting their Aboriginal rights and defying an injunction initiated by Nalcor by slowing traffic near the Muskrat Falls site. Learning was imprisoned and launched a hunger strike that lasted six days, before he was released.
In December 2014 the injunction was thrown out by a panel of three judges in the Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court of Appeal.
Canada has not yet settled a land claim with the Inuit of Southern Labrador, who claim the area around Muskrat Falls as part of their traditional lands. While the provincial government has encouraged a resolution to an agreement it hasn’t adequately consulted with the NCC on Muskrat Falls, Todd Russell has repeatedly said.
Learning was diagnosed with cancer 20 years ago. This summer he faced complications that forced him to travel to St. John’s for care. Until Wednesday he had limited his anti-Muskrat Falls activism to social media and local radio talk shows.
Now he says he will continue to resist the dam however he can, and that in light of recent high profile protests by Indigenous groups and allies against pipelines in the U.S. and Canada, and against the Site C Dam in British Columbia, he hopes the people of Labrador will finally come together to shut down Muskrat Falls.
In June the leaders of all three Inudigenous groups in Labrador—the Inuit of Nunatsiavut, the Innu Nation, and the Inuit of NunatuKavut—united in their call to halt construction of the dam until the groups’ concerns were respectfully dealt with.
“It took us a lot of years to get to this point to build momentum,” Learning told APTN News shortly after receiving treatment for his cancer. “The determination is there now, it’s not much yet, but it’s a foundation we can build on [and] go from there. It reminds us of the control we could have over our territory, without outside interference. That’s what our future is.”