Muskrat Falls is the Future of Contamination in Canada

The management of methylmercury risk at Muskrat Falls and Lake Melville shows us that colonialism is still very much alive in Canada.

Lake Melville and the Churchill River in Labrador have not yet been contaminated.

It is not Grassy Narrows, where mercury poisoning in the ecosystem lingers for years after industrial contamination through acts of crime, negligence and racism.

The threat to health and livelihood downstream from the Muskrat Falls dam is more insidious. It stems from the province’s ability to legally plan and organize unmitigated methylmercury contamination, so that no amount of protest, science, or legal action can do anything to prevent it. The flooding that will soon begin in early August will be a well-planned, scientifically informed, and legally-sanctioned contamination—supported by an official government policy of consultation, monitoring and compensation.

Muskrat Falls is not a problem of ‘legacy mercury’ formed in the past. It is a toxic brew of colonialism and racism, chemistry and finance, cooked up the present. The management of toxic hazard in Labrador shows us that colonialism in Canada is still very much alive. It still arranges the dispossession of land, and it ensures an unequal distribution of industrial risk—the burden of which is borne largely by Indigenous peoples.

In other words: Muskrat Falls may represent the new face of contamination in Canada.

Instead of doing more to protect people from harm, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is pioneering a dangerous new approach to organize the means of legally injuring people. The promise of future compensation for those who will be knowingly exposed to harm protects the state and industry from ethical and legal responsibility for the people and things it endangers. It reclassifies the physical and cultural lives of those downstream as an acceptable collateral damage for an ill-conceived hydroelectric project.

A Tale of Two ‘Sacrifice Zones’

In June 2019, Baskut Tuncak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and toxic chemicals, concluded his visit to Canada with a strongly worded condemnation of the country’s “blatant disregard for Indigenous rights” in its management of toxic hazards. Tuncak drew special attention to the continued failure to clean up industrial mercury spilled upstream from Grassy Narrows in the 1960s, and to the impending reservoir flooding at Muskrat Falls in Labrador.

Less than a month later, Premier Dwight Ball—who is also Minister responsible for Labrador and Indigenous Affairs—confirmed what many long feared: that the province will not carry out any measures to mitigate the methylmercury increases expected when flooding the Muskrat Falls reservoir. Ball’s facile explanation that this inaction is due to an unfortunate oversight in scheduling only confirms the wide-spread pattern Tuncak describes when he writes that Indigenous peoples “find themselves on the wrong side of a toxic divide, subject to conditions that would not be acceptable elsewhere in Canada.”

In place of preventive measures to stop mercury production, the Premier has offered to divide up the $30 million which had been earmarked for mitigation as compensation for the inconvenience caused by imminent exposure to harm.

(NunatuKavut and the Innu Nation have signed compensation agreements with the provincial government, but the Nunatsiavut government is refusing. They insist that flooding must not proceed without mitigation.)

As last month’s statement from the UN makes clear, Muskrat Falls is only one of numerous stories of how methylmercury continues to menace the lives and livelihood of Indigenous communities in Canada. But there are important differences between the crises in Grassy Narrows and Muskrat Falls. Our province’s failure to plan any preventative measures in Labrador is taking mercury regulation in Canada in a dangerous new direction—one that may have implications for managing contamination at the 22 others dams slated to be built in Canada within 100 kilometres of Indigenous communities.

Grassy Narrows is a problem of ‘legacy mercury.’ People there are subject to the continuing after-effects of an initial event of mercury contamination that is now widely recognized to have been made possible by crime, racism and regulatory negligence six decades ago. No regulatory agency has ever done enough to effectively deal with the problem. A 2016 report by Domtar, new owners of the infamous site of contamination upstream from the Grassy Narrows, indicates that mercury is still leaking from the former chemical plant and contaminating the Wabigoon River. Downstream, children continue to suffer congenital mercury-related problems from industrial waste barrels dumped in the early 1960s.

By comparison, what is perhaps most remarkable about the management of toxic hazards at Muskrat Falls is that foreknowledge of the dangers of mercury contamination has made no difference at all. Instead, contamination is being managed as if it could not be avoided and, in a sense, has already taken place. Premier Ball’s unconvincing story of a missed window of opportunity is a transparent and weak attempt to frame future contamination as an event that has already happened and for which the only possible response now is to provide monetary compensation and further monitor environmental conditions.

What is Methylmercury?

Methylmercury (MeHg) is a complex kind of environmental hazard. It is difficult to regulate and control because it is synthesized naturally throughout an ecosystem. Its effects do not emanate from a single location like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the radioactive core at Chernobyl.

Methylmercury is synthesized in the environment in a process that can occur over decades and across hundreds and even thousands of kilometres. Environmental assessments do not measure how much of it is already there. Like preventing fire, it is a question of predicting how much is likely to be created when the right environmental conditions present themselves. Contamination is a dynamic, evolving process; the food web itself becomes the mechanism for creating, storing, concentrating, and distributing the toxicant.

MeHg is a ‘manufactured risk’ that blurs the line between what is naturally occurring and what is humanly engineered. It is the result of a process that occurs in nature, but one which is facilitated and enhanced to dangerous proportions by human activities such as mining and reservoir flooding—which in this country often happens in close proximity to Indigenous communities in Canada’s North.

Methylmercury is created when mercury—released into the environment through the dumping of effluent, or vegetation and topsoil rotting in a flooded reservoir—encounters certain kinds of bacteria that chemically alter (or methylate) it, by adding an atom of carbon to each atom of mercury. In that exchange, Hg (mercury) is turned into MeHg, an organometallic compound that is far more dangerous to human physical and cognitive health than ordinary mercury. Once synthesized by bacteria, MeHg finds its way up through the food chain into the flesh of fish, animals, and humans. It accumulates in the body faster than it can be secreted. It is stored in fatty tissue and brains over a lifetime and affects the body at a subcellular level. When enough methylmercury bioaccumulates in the human body it has a neurotoxic effect, causing physical and cognitive degeneration with symptoms resembling cerebral palsy. Because it can cross the placenta, it can damage a new generation with congenital birth deformity and lifelong problems of cognitive and physical impairment—as it continues to do at Grassy Narrows.

As methylmercury works its way up the food chain, it is not detectable without sophisticated scientific monitoring equipment and knowledge. When it contaminates an ecosystem, it poses the greatest threat to people whose lives revolve around hunting and fishing—as do the lives of many Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The ‘Just Eat Less Fish’ Plan

No matter how effective monitoring and fish advisories turn out to be, after the initial point of contamination, the environment must be regarded as potentially dangerous. Everything tastes and looks the same, but an insensate threat now separates people from the security their natural world had provided for centuries.

Because MeHg is synthesized in the environment across vast stretches of space and time, it is difficult to predict and to regulate. For that reason, failure to do all that can be done to prevent contamination in the first place is irresponsible and dangerous. The promise of monitoring and compensation far into the methylated future depends on the continuing goodwill (and funding) of regulatory agencies. Governments that promise to provide food security and compensation are only in power for brief periods of time determined by election cycles. The environmental effects of mercury poisoning last for generations.

The findings at Muskrat Falls have a further, far reaching significance for the regulation of mercury in Canada. The 2016 Calder et al. study on methylmercury at Muskrat Falls suggests the same conditions triggering increased mercury methylation in Lake Melville may be met at 22 other dams on schedule to be built in Canada, all within 100 kilometres of Indigenous communities. The planned contamination at Muskrat Falls can be understood as a watershed moment in the history of Canada’s mercury crisis—and as a process that might reshape the politics of Indigenous recognition and sovereignty in Canada.

In 2016, when the Calder report was first released, provincial NDP leader Earle McCurdy summarized the new equation on which the project rested: “if we cannot afford to clear the reservoir, we cannot afford the project.” In response, Nick Whalen, federal Liberal MP for St. John’s East, infamously tweeted: “That is ridiculous. Just measure MeHg levels, eat less fish while MeHg levels are too high, and compensate.”

When Whalen’s shockingly ignorant proposal was met with a powerful public rebuke, he retracted the remark and apologized for its insensitivity. But the brutal telegraphic efficiency of his tweet captured what has since remained the only program that has ever been in place for mercury management at Muskrat Falls. Compensation for poisoning has been reworked as a future-oriented planning tool that will allow construction and finance arrangements to remain unchanged. This is in spite of new scientific information that the hazards methylmercury creates are far more dangerous in intensity, duration and geographic reach than first reported in the environmental assessments underpinning the initial sanctioning of Muskrat Falls.

In other instances of industrial pollution disasters—such as in Minamata Bay, Japan, Grassy Narrows, Canada, or the Love Canal, United States—monetary compensation was promised to victims as redress for an irreversible past wrong. In the Muskrat debate, this language of retroactive compensation for past wrongs is being used not to overcome past injustices but to justify the risk of proceeding into the future with full knowledge of the much more dangerous threat of contamination.

Measures once used as a response to an irreversible past act of poisoning, about which nothing could be done, are now being used to organize a policy of doing nothing while something can still be done. The unfair and unjust distribution of risk once allocated according to a more blatant and unregulated racism is now being formalized into a set of standard planning techniques.

Photo by Charlie Flowers.

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