A community leader in Labrador who was arrested last Friday for allegedly breaching an injunction initiated by Nalcor Energy says she confronted Muskrat Falls security and police with the intention of being heard.
Melissa Best, chair of the Mud Lake improvement committee, told The Independent she breached an injunction stating individuals cannot enter the Muskrat Falls site when she crossed the Trans Labrador Highway from the land protectors’ Peace Camp to the main gate.
She said she wanted to obtain a copy of an injunction that was posted on the outside of the gate, which she said was only legible by approaching the gate, which required breaking the injunction.
Best told The Independent the gate was closed when she first approached it, but that once security opened it she “went inside and asked the security for a copy of the injunction.”
“In my mind I wondered, would they arrest me?” she said. “I didn’t think they would, because they already gave me the ultimate penalty by flooding my community.”
She said “within minutes” of her crossing the road “the RCMP started showing up,” and that she counted at least 16 officers.
“May 17 came flooding back again, and I said to them, who are you here to protect? And they wouldn’t answer me,” she recounted, referring to the flood last spring that resulted in an emergency evacuation of her riverside community and left some homeless, pending government assistance and housing repairs.
“I said, I’ll find out who you’re here to protect — and they said, ma’am, don’t do that, and I just kept going,” she continued, explaining she crossed the highway a second time.
Best said she walked along the shoulder of the north side of the highway confronting police officers and asking them to arrest her. She also asked them what they would do in her situation.
She said Nalcor and the provincial government have not adequately responded to the Mud Lake flood, explaining the event has caused significant anxiety in the community of 60 people and has even forced some with deep family ties there to consider whether it’s safe to continue living downstream of Muskrat Falls at all.
Several RCMP officers refused to arrest Best, she said. Then she encountered one who told her, “Just wait right there, you’re going to get your wish,” she recalled.
“I didn’t think they would [arrest me], because they already gave me the ultimate penalty by flooding my community.”
Moments later Sheriff’s Officers showed up and arrested her, Best said, adding she recognized one as an individual who had helped with a Mud Lake relief fundraising effort.
Best said she thought to herself at that moment: “This is not us against the RCMP. This is not us against the Sheriff’s Office. This is us against Nalcor.”
Nalcor has pursued charges against dozens of people, most of them Inuit and Innu, who have resisted Muskrat Falls and said the project threatens their traditional food supply, their way of life, and their families’ and communities’ safety.
Best, a member of NunatuKavut originally from Cartwright, was held in custody overnight Friday and appeared before a judge Saturday morning. She signed an undertaking agreeing to stay away from the Muskrat Falls site, with the exception of the Peace Camp across the highway from the main gate.
“I’m kicking myself for signing the undertaking because I could have made a stronger stand if I didn’t,” she told The Independent, but said she was forced to choose between one health risk and another.
Best lives with two autoimmune diseases, lupus and fibromyalgia, and said being put in jail would have made her more susceptible to serious illness. On the other hand, she said, the stress from living downstream is affecting the health of her and other Mud Lake residents, and a dam breach could potentially claim the lives of people in her community.
Government assistance to Mud Lake residents “a joke”
Best said on Friday she and others were at the Peace Camp to watch the final of several transformers arrive at the Muskrat Falls site via Cartwright.
She said the transformers represent the “final doom…because it is inevitable [that] once this dam is complete, Mud Lake will be no more.”
She said she’s disappointed that the Town of Cartwright and NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) changed their position on the transformers. Last fall NCC President Todd Russell and Cartwright Mayor Dwight Lethbridge vowed their people would block the transformers if Nalcor or its contractors tried to land the supplies at the Cartwright or other NCC ports en route to Muskrat Falls.
Best said once the project is complete and the reservoir flooded, she believes the North Spur, a peninsula on the Churchill River that Nalcor will use as a “natural dam” as part of the Muskrat Falls facilities, may not hold.
“What if the North Spur let go when [the reservoir is] at its maximum capacity?” she said. “Or what if they had to let the water go, or the dam breaks?”
Best said on May 17 Mud Lake residents “had enough time to watch the water rise and then get out” of their homes. “What happens if we have 18-plus meters of water coming down? We have no time, and the Lower Valley is gone.”
Since May 17 Nalcor has changed its tune on the potential cause of of the flood. The crown corporation initially denied any responsibility, but after significant public backlash acknowledged the Muskrat Falls facilities may have contributed to what locals described as unprecedented water level rise.
The following week Premier Dwight Ball announced the government was accepting applications for potential compensation from homeowners whose houses were damaged by the floodwaters, and that the government would hire an independent consultant to investigate the cause of the flood.
Days later Mud Lake residents announced they were preparing to launch a class action lawsuit against Nalcor for the flooding of their community.
“What happens if we have 18-plus meters of water coming down? We have no time, and the Lower Valley is gone.”
Best said that she hasn’t yet signed on to the lawsuit because as community leader she’s not making a decision until she knows the results of the investigation, though she said she’s “99 percent certain” Muskrat Falls is to blame for the flooding.
“Until the independent study comes out I’m remaining on the fence, because when it comes out I will know then that Nalcor is at fault and has no choice but to pay out of their ears, without [us] having to sue them,” she said.
In July Uncle Gnarley blogger Des Sullivan published a leaked letter that appears to be written by an employee of Barnard Pennecon, the subcontractor responsible for constructing the dam, to a Muskrat Falls Corporation project manager.
The letter states that a blockade of part of the Muskrat Falls site by land protectors was due to Barnard Pennecon’s “release of water or failure to properly manage the downstream flows which resulted in the flooding of the Mud Lake community.”
The company, responding to the letter’s publication, told media the letter “[does] not represent an official company statement, and [does] not accurately reflect BPLP’s position on the project.”
A Barnard Pennecon spokesperson refused to elaborate on the comment when questioned by The Independent.
Earlier this month the province announced it had set aside $2.96 million for victims of the flooding.
Best called the money the government has already offered some residents “ridiculous,” and “a joke.”
“I’ve been arguing and fighting and begging and pleading with them to give my people their assessments,” she said, explaining many are still awaiting the results of the government’s dollar value estimates of the damage done to their properties.
“My residents have the right to know what damage is done to their properties so they can make a conscious choice about what their next step is going to be.”
“Guarantee us that it will hold”
Best said the government should heed the calls of land protectors, experts who have chimed in on the matter, opposition parties and others who have joined the call for an investigation into the North Spur.
“Get the North Spur checked and guarantee us that it will hold,” she said. “Guarantee us that this is the safest thing.”
She said prior to the Mud Lake flood she hadn’t followed the warnings of hydro engineers and others not associated with the Muskrat Falls project, and that she “had faith in [Nalcor] and faith in the Gilbert Bennetts of the world that this was not going to happen.”
Bennett is the Vice-President of Nalcor Energy in charge of the Muskrat Falls project. Over the past few years he has repeatedly assured locals that the project is safe and does not pose a significant threat to their health or well-being.
“Ideally, they would stop the project all together,” said Best, explaining that she no longer has confidence a dam can be built that would not put her community at risk. “We don’t have a big river, but she’s a mighty river. We’ve always said that — she can be nasty.
“Churchill Falls already done some damage and we were able to live with that, but this time I don’t think we can.”
At the very least, she wants the project shut down “until they secure the North Spur, and until Nalcor can “prove to us that this is not going to happen again, that this was a once in a lifetime freak accident.”