The Nunatsiavut Government recently launched a campaign with two simple and seemingly reasonable goals: to prevent one of the Inuit’s major traditional food supplies from being poisoned, and to protect the health and well-being of their people.
It sounds dramatic but a recent independent scientific study out of Harvard University suggests there’s a chance that once the Muskrat Falls reservoir is flooded, methylmercury levels downstream in Lake Melville could rise up to 200 percent, a scenario that could render fish, seals and seabirds—traditional foods that many Inuit depend on—inedible.
Since mercury bioaccumulates once it enters the food chain, human consumption of contaminated wild meats could have devastating effects on Inuit health. According to the federal government, symptoms of methylmercury toxicity—or “Minimata disease”—range from nervous system damage to intellectual impairment, while additional findings have described “adverse cardiovascular and immune system effects at very low exposure levels.”
If that’s not frightening enough, methylmercury can also affect babies and fetuses. Environment Canada says “prenatal exposure to organic mercury, even at levels that do not appear to affect the mother, may depress the development of the central nervous system and may cause psychomotor retardation for affected children,” while “mild neurological and developmental delays may occur in infants ingesting methylmercury in breast milk.
“Affected children may exhibit reduced coordination and growth, lower intelligence, poor hearing and verbal development, cerebral palsy and behavioural problems.”
In addition to the physical health effects of mercury consumption, Nunatsiavut says on its Make Muskrat Right website that elevated methylmercury levels in Lake Melville could also “threaten Inuit rights as well as our human rights to culture, health and livelihoods.”
The Make Muskrat Right petition is addressed to Premier Paul Davis, Liberal leader Dwight Ball, NDP leader Earle McCurdy, federal Fisheries Minister Hunter Tootoo, federal Health Minister Jane Philpott, and federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna. It asks that the reservoir area be cleared of vegetation prior to flooding “to reduce methylmercury flowing downstream into Inuit territory,” an action that was recommended by the Joint Review Panel (JRP) in its 2011 report.
Second, the petition asks for an “Impact Management Agreement with the Nunatsiavut Government before Muskrat Falls’ flooding and damaging downstream impacts occur,” which is also consistent with a JRP recommendation.
Third, it asks for the establishment of an “independent Expert Advisory Committee of recognized academic experts to advise on the design of, and audit, a rigorous, credible, and predictive monitoring program for downstream impacts of Muskrat Falls, using the best available Inuit and scientific knowledge.”
And finally, the petition asks the government to grant Inuit “joint decision-making authority over downstream environmental monitoring and management of the Lower Churchill project.”
Amnesty International and David Suzuki have both recently lent their voices to the campaign and support the Inuit in protecting their traditional food supply and their people’s health.
Politicians shirk responsibility
Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut’s Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, told The Independent last week that despite Nunatsiavut’s effort to arrange a meeting with the provincial government and Nalcor—the province’s Crown energy corporation—to lay out their concerns, they have not received a response.
The Make Muskrat Right campaign isn’t Nunatsiavut’s first attempt to force the province and Nalcor to take greater preventative measures on methylmercury. Earlier this year the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador ruled against Nunatsiavut’s attempt to stop a permit allowing project construction to proceed.
“We tried going through the courts to get the courts to force the companies to clear [the reservoir] and that didn’t work in our favour, so we really thought about it and said, we really need to think meaningfully on how we can get not only Nalcor and the provincial government but the public to realize there’s a huge concern here and that something needs to be done because we’re running out of time,” said Shiwak.
The Harvard methylmercury study was commissioned in part by Nunatsiavut in response to Nalcor’s assertion during the environmental assessment process that there would be little to no increase in methylmercury levels downstream from the dam in Lake Melville.
In a recent interview, responding to a question about the difference in the findings between Nalcor’s research and the Harvard study, Premier Davis told The Independent “the science around methylmercury and concerns are very technical, and there’s differences of opinion on risk and outcomes and so on.”
He went on to commend Nalcor’s efforts, saying they are “doing a tremendous amount of work as the operators of the project, and they’re doing a high amount of science and review around methylmercury and potential outcomes of that. So if you want to have a discussion about methylmercury itself, I’m sure Nalcor could do that for you.”
If you want to have a discussion about methylmercury itself, I’m sure Nalcor could do that for you. — Premier Paul Davis
Similarly, when questioned about Nunatsiavut’s methylmercury concerns Liberal Party leader Dwight Ball and Liberal candidates in Labrador have pointed the finger at Nalcor.
In an interview with The Independent last week Ball echoed Davis’ comments, saying the methylmercury issue “is a scientific question, it’s very technical,” and that he would leave navigating the difference between the two studies “to the scientists on both sides.”
Ball, who is widely expected to become the province’s 13th premier following Monday’s general election, also deferred the issue to Nalcor.
Asked if, as premier, he would allow Muskrat Falls to proceed if there were any outstanding concerns by Indigenous people who could be affected negatively by the dam, Ball did not say yes or no, but said he would ask Nalcor to sit down at the table with Nunatsiavut.
“The important thing is to get an understanding of what the nature and the scope is of what we’re talking about here,” he said. “For me it’s always about sitting down and consulting with Aboriginal groups that would be impacted, so that they have a say and a part in the discussion. Unfortunately I don’t think there was a lengthy enough discussion with the people who will be impacted, in this case the people of Nunatsiavut. If this was next week, I would be asking Nalcor to go and sit with Nunatsiavut and get those meetings established so they can get an understanding of what the outstanding issues are.”
Following the launch of the Make Muskrat Right campaign, Liberal candidate for Lake Melville Perry Trimper issued a public statement expressing concern over the findings of the Harvard study—which were made public in early September—but ultimately passed the buck to Nalcor too.
“Trimper, and Torngat Mountains candidate Randy Edmunds, are concerned given the research relates to future levels of methylmercury from this hydroelectric development,” reads the Nov. 25 press release.
“The question is whether this new information influences predictions contained in Nalcor’s environmental assessment of the Muskrat Falls project, and whether subsequent mitigation and monitoring programs need to be revised,” said Trimper.
During a recent candidates’ debate NDP leader Earle McCurdy indicated his support for Nunatsiavut’s campaign and said he had signed the petition. Looking over at Davis and Ball, McCurdy asked, “Did you sign the petition?” Both leaders replied, “No.”
Despite expressing concern over the Harvard methylmercury study findings, none of the Liberal or PC candidates have signed the Make Muskrat Right petition. They’ve only deferred to Nalcor.
Nalcor downplays significance of Harvard study
Gilbert Bennett is the Vice President for Nalcor Energy on the Lower Churchill Project. When contacted by The Independent in September, he downplayed the significance of the Harvard study, saying “methylmercury is a long-term effect [of hydro dams], so a study over a short period of time is not going to fully inform our monitoring process, which goes on over many years and also [should consider] the impact on human health.”
Shiwak said the second report from the Harvard study, which focuses specifically on the human health impact risks associated with Muskrat Falls, is due out in January.
Bennett explained Nalcor has collected baseline mercury level data from fish in Lake Melville, as well as data on mercury levels in residents of the area, via dietary surveys and hair samples.
While…some [Indigenous] groups might have different perspectives on that, their input was considered. — Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor
He said it is “unlikely” there will be elevated mercury levels, but if it does occur as the Harvard study indicates it could, Nalcor “will have to look at consumption advisories” on fish in “various locations” in Lake Melville. “And that’s what we’e seen with other hydro projects in Canada.”
Asked if he thought the project should proceed if there is a risk it could contaminate the Inuit’s country food supply, which Nunatsiavut says thousands of people still rely on today for a source of healthy and affordable protein, Bennett said full and adequate consultations were carried out during the environmental assessment process, and that “ultimately governments took a decision, and while…some groups might have different perspectives on that, their input was considered.”
Shiwak said the promise to erect signs warning Inuit not to harvest fish from Lake Melville if mercury levels rise to unsafe levels is “unacceptable”.
“We know this is happening now [and] if you know it’s happening you need to take steps to ensure that you do whatever you can right now to mitigate those effects,” he said.
“It’s more than me — it’s my children and their children”
In addition to McCurdy, other NDP members, including Lake Melville candidate Arlene Micheline and Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs critic Lorraine Michael, have thrown their support behind the Make Muskrat Right campaign.
Speaking to The Independent last week, Michael said the NDP have expressed concern about the potential impacts of methylmercury since 2012, when she stood in the House of Assembly and grilled then-Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy on the issue.
This is a project of Newfoundland and Labrador, and we are residents, we are people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and you need to respect that. — Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut
“At that time [Kennedy] made light of it,” she said, explaining the PCs were wrong to ignore the recommendations of the Joint Review Panel, which “recognized the danger [and] therefore gave a very clear recommendation which said that Nalcor be required to apply its full-clearing preparation option.
“So that meant that the whole area had to be clear-cut so that you would reduce the amount of methylmercury that could be produced. It was disturbing to me at the time, when the government’s response was not to agree with the panel,” Michael continued. “And I think the panel had done extensive research and knew what it was talking about, and now the Harvard study…shows that the panel was correct — and I think any government here in Newfoundland and Labrador should pay attention to the original recommendation of the Joint Review Panel and do full clear-cutting.”
Shiwak said all Nunatsiavut is asking is that the provincial government and Nalcor respect the Inuit’s desire to continue living the traditional way of life in terms of hunting and fishing in the Lake Melville area, and that they take their methylmercury concerns seriously.
“This is a project of Newfoundland and Labrador, and we are residents, we are people of Newfoundland and Labrador, and you need to respect that,” he said. “Respect that what we’re saying is true — we’re not just here putting this out because we’re trying to create a noise, we’re doing it because we’re extremely concerned what will happen not just tomorrow, after flooding, but 10 years down the road, 20 years down the road.
“This is not a thing that just happens and then it goes away; it builds and builds and builds, and it’s more than me — it’s my children and their children, and that’s the way we need to think of it. Let’s make it a great project, let’s make it better.”