Soon, Joseph Townley will face one of the most difficult dilemmas of his life. The 33-year-old Inuk from North West River may have to decide whether he will continue harvesting country foods from Lake Melville, or give up the traditional lifestyle practiced by his ancestors for thousands of years.
Like many residents in the Lake Melville region of Labrador, Townley and his family harvest “everything that’s out there to harvest” from the 3,000-square kilometre body of water his community borders. And like many of the almost 6,000 Indigenous people that live in the area, that harvest is important to his Inuit identity.
“That’s the way we grew up here, is harvesting from the land,” he explains, standing on a sand beach on the southwest shore of the lake at a popular fishing spot between the mouths of the Kenamu and Kenamish Rivers.
Townley is a conservation officer for Nunatsiavut—one of two Inuit governments in Labrador—and also a father who worries he might not be able to feed his three-year-old son the same foods he grew up harvesting and eating.
According to a groundbreaking study led by researchers at Harvard University, once the reservoir of the controversial hydroelectric megaproject at Muskrat Falls is flooded, methylmercury levels are expected to rise within 72 hours and flow into Lake Melville, where Inuit, Innu and settlers harvest fish, seals and seabirds as a source of healthy and affordable food in a remote northern region where food prices are often double or triple those in Newfoundland.
Country foods are a staple for the Indigenous communities in the area, where unemployment is high, household incomes are low, and residents depend on harvesting traditional foods to feed their families and maintain their cultural identity.
“It’s quite concerning because you don’t know what kind of side effects [the methylmercury] could have on him, and then not only for him but his kids too when he grows up, because it’s something that’s always going to be in the water here — it bioaccumulates, and once it’s in there it’s in there,” Townley says.
Methylmercury is a central nervous system toxin with “a high absorbtion efficiency, so greater than 90 percent is generally absorbed into your body,” Dr. Elsie Sunderland, the Harvard lead on the ‘Lake Melville: Avativut, Kanuittailinnivut (Our Environment, Our Health)’ study on the potential human health impacts of Muskrat Falls, explained at a press conference in St. John’s last April.
Sunderland said the main well-established effects of methylmercury are “neuro-developmental impacts on children that persist throughout their life,” and that it has been “associated with increases in cardiovascular health impairments in adults, so increased incidents of heart attacks.
“Indigenous populations throughout the world who consume large quantities of marine foods are especially vulnerable to methylmercury naturally because of their diet,” she added.
According to the World Health Organization, “methylmercury exposure in the womb can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish,” and that it can “adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system. The primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Therefore, cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills may be affected in children who were exposed to methylmercury as foetuses.”
Lake Melville “very interesting,” different from other estuaries
The Harvard study is the first to document baseline data for methylmercury in Lake Melville, a necessary step toward understanding how Muskrat Falls would impact marine life and humans living downstream.
Amina Schartup, a postdoctoral fellow and member of the Harvard research team, explained to The Independent last September that they found Lake Melville to be “very interesting” because unlike other estuaries that have been studied, in Lake Melville most methylmercury was found being “produced near the surface.”
In comparable northern marine systems methylmercuy is produced predominantly by sediment at the bottom.
Lake Melville’s uniqueness is largely the result of freshwater flowing out of various rivers into the estuary—particularly during the spring melt, and the Churchill River being the largest contributor—which creates “great conditions” for methylmercury production near the surface, she explained.
Overall, the methylmercury levels the research team found in Lake Melville were “relatively low,” Schartup explained, but the concentrations “in the biota, in the lower part of the food web—which is phytoplankton and zooplankton—are higher relative to other systems in the temperate region.
“So because you have this surface layer where this biological activity happens, you actually concentrate practically all of the methylmercury in the system…near the surface.”
Methylmercury bioaccumulates in higher concentrations as it moves up the food web, beginning with biota, and moving up into fish, seabirds, seals and humans.
The Harvard study projects that under a scenario in which the Muskrat Falls reservoir is partially cleared of trees and brush, methylmercury exposure for “individuals who consume greater amounts of country foods may increase by up to 1500%.”
Government, Nalcor downplay study
The study has been met with concern from locals and Indigenous governments in Labrador, and with skepticism by Nalcor, the provincial Crown energy corporation leading the Muskrat Falls development, and Newfoundland and Labrador’s environment minister.
During the environmental assessment (EA) process for Muskrat Falls, Nalcor claimed downstream impacts from methylmercury would be “not measurable” beyond the mouth of the river, a point several participants in the process questioned, including Nunatsiavut Government. In its review of the EA, the Joint Review Panel (JRP), tasked with evaluating the EA, recommended full clearing of the reservoir to minimize the potential downstream impacts. Nalcor dismissed the recommendation.
Following the study’s release Gilbert Bennett, head of the Muskrat Falls development for Nalcor, said Nalcor still “[does] not predict that [the] creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir will heighten risk to people in Lake Melville,” CBC reported.
Residents of Rigolet, a Nunatsiavut community of 300 that sits at the northeastern end of Lake Melville, are at the greatest risk of mercury exposure, the study says, with almost half to two-thirds of residents expected to exceed “the most conservative Health Canada and U.S. EPA guidelines” for mercury exposure if the dam’s reservoir is only partially cleared.
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To this day the provincial government defends Nalcor’s decision to only partially clear the reservoir. In an interview last June provincial environment minister and Lake Melville MHA Perry Trimper, who represents most of the people whose health could be impacted by Muskrat Falls’ output of methylmercury, told The Independent Nalcor would remove 75 percent of the reservoir’s timber and leave the topsoil in tact.
Trimper, an environmental scientist who worked for Nalcor—and Stantec, a private multinational corporation hired by Nalcor to conduct and contribute various studies during the Muskrat Falls EA process—has repeatedly thrown doubt over the Harvard study, arguing that “whether or not you took out 75 percent of the vegetation or 100 percent of the vegetation, you effectively arrive at the same situation downstream. No question, methylmercury will increase, but it increases at a very small amount.”
The study prompted Nalcor and the government, however, to commit to expanding the methylmercury monitoring program out into Lake Melville. If mercury levels become unsafe, they say they will issue consumption advisories to Inuit and others who harvest food from the estuary.
“We’ve committed to undertaking the effects monitoring program for decades into the future, and we’ll continue to do our work with the Aboriginal groups and the public to fully understand this,” Bennett told The Independent last September following the release of the the first part of the methylmercury study. “And we need to continue to validate that the predictions that were made in the EA are seen in the field.
“We will continue to monitor fish and seals and continue to take dietary surveys and work with Aboriginal groups, fully understand the potential for impact on human health, and then deal with those results as we move forward,” he added.
Nunatsiavut responds with demand to “Make Muskrat Right”
The government and Nalcor’s decision to downplay the Harvard study’s findings prompted Nunatsiavut to launch Make Muskrat Right, a campaign aimed at minimizing the risk Muskrat Falls poses to Inuit health and giving Nunatsiavut some control over how monitoring is undertaken and future decisions are made with respect to the dam’s impact on Inuit living downstream.
Specifically, Nunatsiavut Government wants the federal and provincial governments to direct Nalcor to fully clear the reservoir of trees, brush, vegetation and topsoil; to negotiate a joint Impact Management Agreement; to establish an independent Expert Advisory Committee; and to “grant Inuit joint decision-making authority over downstream environmental monitoring and management of Muskrat Falls”.
[T]o have that gone would be a significant loss to our identity, to the culture, to our communities. — Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut Minister of Lands and Natural Resources
Trimper agreed only to Nunatsiavut’s second recommendation, the establishment of an impact management agreement.
“I said OK, you want your compensation, I have the authority to do it,” he said. “So if everything is wrong and if these food advisories are needed as a result of increased methylmercury levels as a result of Muskrat Falls and [Inuit] can no longer avail of these important country foods, then there’s your compensation.”
Nunatsiavut has firmly rejected the offer, stating they never asked for financial compensation and aren’t interested in it since no amount of money can compensate for the loss of access to country foods and a traditional way of life.
“All these rights we fought for for years—to be able to hunt and fish and harvest what we need on a daily basis—will be impacted by this methylmercury coming into our settlement area,” Darryl Shiwak, Nunatsiavut’s Minister of Lands and Natural Resources, recently told The Independent. “That right is essentially being taken away.
“The fact we can get up in the morning and go in a boat or out on to the sea ice and go fishing is something we are taught since we are very young and something we assume we can do on a daily basis,” he explained, “and to have that gone would be a significant loss to our identity, to the culture, to our communities. It’s something we would be trying to [teach] to our grandchildren in the future.”
Panelists speak out
Last December, after the first phase results of the Harvard study were released, Cathy Jong, a member of the Joint Review Panel, spoke out against the government and Nalcor’s response to the new science highlighting the risk methylmercury poses to those who consume country food from Lake Melville.
“I think this is solid information, and that’s the kind of information that we should be using….so that we have as solid and as scientifically based a response as possible,” she told CBC.
In a blog post on his university’s website last November, Meinhard Doelle, another member of the JRP and a Professor of Law at Dalhousie University’s Schulich School of Law, said the government and Nalcor’s failure to adequately respond to the new science highlights problems with the environmental assessment process.
In the case of Muskrat Falls, the “unwillingness of governments to share and accept responsibility to ensure the effective implementation of recommendations is striking,” he said, referring to the recommendation, among others, that the reservoir be fully cleared.
“It seems clear from the [Harvard] study that the predictions made by Nalcor with respect to methylmercury have now been shown to be inaccurate,” he wrote, urging “immediate government action” to address the threat Muskrat Falls will pose to locals once the reservoir is flooded.
In June Trimper signed off on Nalcor’s Human Health and Assessment Plan for Muskrat Falls, which promises to monitor methylmercury levels in Lake Melville and compensate individuals affected by unsafe levels of the neurotoxin.
Last month Nunatsiavut appealed the decision, stating in a letter to the minister that they are “deeply concerned that the threats posed by methylmercury in the environment are being minimized despite new scientific evidence that the risks of methylmercury contamination of the Lake Melville environment are significantly greater than was believed when the environmental assessment of the Project was completed in 2012.”
On Sept. 16 Trimper rejected the appeal.
“Everyone should be concerned”
Mervyn Andersen is from Makkovik but now lives in Goose Bay and has been hunting and fishing in Rigolet for 40 years. He says if mercury levels rise and a consumption advisory is implemented, “it would affect us big time because we eat a lot of fish.”
Andersen said that, like he and his ancestors, his two boys grew up on trout and salmon from Lake Melville, and that people in the region won’t have other healthy options to turn to if their country food is contaminated.
Food prices in the area have “gone crazy since Muskrat Falls started,” he said, pointing out that even if locals didn’t mind resorting to imported and often processed foods many couldn’t afford them anyhow.
Townley contextualized the scale of the situation, saying “almost every Aboriginal household out there [is] harvesting from the lake.”
He says thousands of locals consume fish harvested from Lake Melville during the summer and winter months. Seals are harvested in the spring and, like the fish, are distributed among families in the communities and to elders who can no longer harvest food on their own. Sea birds and their eggs are harvested to a lesser extent but predominantly by Indigenous families.
Townley says he’s not sure exactly how locals will respond once the reservoir is flooded, but that fear is already spreading throughout the five communities on Lake Melville.
“We hear a lot of complaints coming into the office saying that the fish is going to be poisoned,” he explains. “Everything will [have to be eaten] in moderation, but I guess there’s no safe level of mercury — so there is a lot of concern in Lake Melville here, not just for Aboriginal people but for everybody living in the area, because everybody up here do do some sort of harvesting one way or the other.”
Look at [the] faces of youth and elders and tell them everything thing will be ok. — Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe
In June all three Indigenous leaders in Labrador united for the first time in support of Nunatsiavut’s campaign and to join the call for the full clearing of the Muskrat Falls reservoir. At a rally in Happy Valley-Goose Bay Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe asked Dwight Ball, who attended the rally, to “look at [the] faces of youth and elders and tell them everything thing will be ok. Tell them you will protect their health, culture and way of life. Tell them you care, tell them you will make muskrat right.”
Todd Russell, President of the NunatuKavut Community Council, which represents the Inuit of southern Labrador, called the event “historic” and said the uniting of the Indigenous leaders at the rally “speaks to the seriousness and significance of the methylmercury poisoning which the government and Nalcor is intent on doing to our people.”
Meanwhile, Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee, who is one of the signatories of the 2008 land claim agreement that paved the way for the Muskrat Falls development, said it’s “a concern for all of us that use Lake Melville that the pathways methylmercury uses to enter the food web is not fully understood.
“The province needs to compare Nalcor’s science to the independent experts, scientists and Aboriginal knowledge holders,” she added.
In his interview with The Independent Shiwak emphasized that the threat of methylmercury “is not just an Inuit issue — this is an issue for everybody who lives and fishes downstream from Muskrat Falls. Everybody should be concerned,” he said.
“There are many many more people who should be standing up and voicing their concerns and making this an issue that the provincial government really needs to deal with and deal with fast, because the window of opportunity is closing.”
(This is Part 1 of a two-part feature exploring how Muskrat Falls will impact those who live downstream, particularly Indigenous communities. Read Part 2 here.)
The Independent is holding an online auction in support of our continued coverage of the Indigenous-led resistance to Muskrat Falls. You can donate an item to the auction, or place a bid, here. The auction ends at 11:59 p.m. on Oct. 7.