Muskrat Falls: A deadly boondoggle that will harm generations of Indigenous people

As the megaproject inches closer to reality, opposition to its deadly impact is growing.

The clock is ticking on the biggest boondoggle in recent provincial history.

The first phase of flooding Muskrat Falls’ reservoir—the stage which many consider the point of no return—is poised for as early as Oct. 15.

And opposition is rising in response to the looming threat the dam poses to country foods and traditional ways of life for communities downstream from the dam, with a new wave of resistance growing in Labrador.

Many of the protestors will be calling on the provincial government and Nalcor to agree to the demands of Nunatsiavut Government’s #MakeMuskratRight campaign: full clearing of the reservoir prior to any flooding in order to reduce the likelihood of methylmercury poisoning, ongoing monitoring by independent experts, and joint control over impact and compensation shared with the local Indigenous communities.

For the first time since 2012, momentum is also gathering in St. John’s, where grassroots group Coordinated Approach is planning a protest and possible blockade of Nalcor headquarters in St. John’s on Oct. 7.

About 40 people gathered outside Lake Melville MHA and environment minister Perry Trimper's office in Happy Valley-Goose Bay on Sept. 30, 2016 to protest the Muskrat Falls hydro development. Photo by Justin Brake.
“Islanders opposed to the project are fighting against cronyism, public debt and higher energy bills. Labradorians are fighting for their very lives.” Photo by Justin Brake.

The relative silence of opposition and resistance to Muskrat Falls in St. John’s underscores the fault lines in the Muskrat Falls struggle: Indigenous versus non-Indigenous Newfoundlanders and Labradorians; Newfoundlanders versus Labradorians; residents of rural communities versus urban elites.

In St. John’s, opposition to Muskrat Falls—a project now widely derided and acknowledged as a financial and political disaster—has largely focused on the massive expense. The mega-project, once touted as the solution to Newfoundland’s energy problems and fiscal crisis alike, has become a weight around the province’s neck that’s dragging it billions of dollars into debt with little likelihood of any return.

It will also significantly increase power costs for the average Newfoundlander and Labradorian. The project itself has become a lucrative source of personal income for the province’s corporate elites, the most dramatic example being the scandalous case of former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin, who was fired and waltzed off with a $6.2 million severance for his contribution to the crisis.

But although there’s purportedly an investigation into the matter (how is that coming along, anyway?) the attitude of many Islanders has been to throw up their shoulders in disgust and resignation, fatalistically giving in to the fact that we’ve been conned yet again by our own corporate and political leadership and there’s nothing we can do about it.

A different attitude exists in Labrador, where opposition to the project is gathering momentum. There’s more at stake there, too. Islanders will feel the impact of the Muskrat Falls disaster on their energy bills, and the general negative impact of the project on the provincial economy. But on top of all that, thousands of Labradorians living in the Lake Melville region also have to contend with the project existing in their own backyard front yard, and the very real and scientifically proven likelihood that it will poison a traditional food source, their ecosystem, and themselves.

Islanders opposed to the project are fighting against cronyism, public debt and higher energy bills.

Labradorians are fighting for their very lives.

Double-standards and corporate science

The issue of methylmercury poisoning resulting from the project has gained prominence in the news, particularly after a Harvard-led research study discounted the arguments of Nalcor’s own internal assessment that methylmercury contamination could be controlled. Nalcor has responded to Harvard by vaguely disputing the results of their research, indicating the research team came up with different conclusions than Nalcor did (duh), though Nalcor hasn’t specifically responded to the scientific evidence provided by the Harvard team.

Nevertheless, the public debate has boiled down to ‘Whose science is right?’ It would be a fascinating debate to observe from a dispassionate distance, if it weren’t for the seriousness of the outcome. If Nalcor is wrong, people will get sick—a lot of people—and some could die.

Memorial geography professor Trevor Bell, who contributed to the Harvard-led study, has tried to inject a different tone to the debate, arguing that regardless of which study you believe, there’s something called the ‘precautionary principle’ that should be applied.

As he put it in an informative letter published in The Telegram in August:

The precautionary principle is about the wisdom of action under uncertainty. This wisdom is deeply rooted in proverbs such as better safe than sorry. They remind us that it’s better to take action and know you’ll be safe in case misfortune occurs, than to have it occur and be sorry and wish you had. The precautionary principle acknowledges that there is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm when scientific investigation has found a plausible risk.

In other words, when lives—not to mention entire ecosystems—are at stake, you don’t need overwhelming proof to back off of your proposed development. You just need a good, compelling argument in favour of disaster.

And the Harvard team has offered a more-than-compelling argument.

Public trust in corporate-sponsored environmental science has worn thin in recent years. In 2008, the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance issued a pamphlet promoting fish farming, wherein they confidently stated that fish farming is “one of the most strictly regulated industries in the world,” and that “escapes have been dramatically reduced since the early 1990s, and have been estimated at well below one percent in every year since 1995. A farmed salmon that escapes into the wild is poorly adapted for survival, and only small proportions of escaped salmon survive.”

Yet last month federal research “confirmed that escaped farmed salmon are breeding with wild salmon and producing offspring in many rivers in Newfoundland.” The study revealed that among the thousands of salmon studied on the Island’s south coast, fish in 17 of the 18 rivers were found to be interbreeding.

So much for corporate environmental science. Provincial Environment and Conservation Minister Perry Trimper—a corporate environmental scientist himself—recently released a multinational corporation’s planned salmon farm in Placentia Bay from having to complete a full environmental assessment.

Incidentally, Trimper has also repeatedly cast doubt over the Harvard study’s warnings about Muskrat Falls.

Double standards and the Manuels River

During a protest against Muskrat Falls on Friday, Roy Blake, Nunatsiavut Government’s Ordinary Member for Upper Lake Melville, read an excerpt from a CBC article quoting Trimper on a couple of incidents on the Avalon earlier this summer, involving someone dumping soap suds into the Manuels River as well as a waterway in La Manche Provincial Park. As CBC reported:

Perry Trimper, the province’s environment minister, said such sudsings are not nice, relaxing breaks: They are illegal acts of pollution.

“This is a dangerous activity, which can be harmful to fish and other animals in the habitat,” he said.

“Our environment is sensitive and we must protect it. Polluting waterways is disrespectful to all Newfoundlanders and Labradorians.”

Blake put the quote in context at Friday’s rally: “Quite a statement to make when it comes down to what we’re going through here now, with methylmercury going to be flowing through our waters, and our way of life,” he said.

“Everything has to change. Mr. Trimper, Premier Ball — I have to ask. I’m really concerned as a citizen here in Upper Lake Melville: Is this really legal? Do you really think that it’s not going to harm our fish, our habitat, our way of life? Minister Trimper, I am sick to the stomach…with your decision, and you, and your government.”

There is, of course, a significant difference between Lake Melville and the Manuels River, and it’s not just in terms of jobs and revenue. The Manuels River is a recreational preserve enjoyed by predominantly white folks on the urbanized Avalon Peninsula; the provincial government uses the Interpretation Centre for press conferences and other show-off events. Lake Melville, on the other hand, is in a distant, easily ignored rural setting inhabited heavily by Indigenous Peoples.

Double standards and Doc O’Keefe

The double standards are not limited to Trimper and the provincial government.

A few years ago, I interviewed an organic farmer in the St. John’s region who was frustrated that he couldn’t get a permit approved to do organic farming on the outskirts of the city. City Hall’s reasoning in refusing the permit? That the farming was too near the city’s watershed area and even though there was no scientific evidence to back up the fear that organic farming would contaminate Windsor Lake, the notion of organic farming going on so close to the city’s water supply made them nervous and they wanted to err on the side of caution (even in defiance of scientific evidence).

During the debate about the organic farm, St. John’s Mayor Dennis O’Keefe made a number of statements that are worth reflecting on. He was talking about Windsor Lake near St. John’s, but his comments resonate closely with what Labradorians are saying about Lake Melville, which could be jeopardized by methylmercury contamination from Muskrat Falls.

These double standards…signify a deliberate and ongoing act of environmental racism by the leadership of Nalcor and its bosses in the provincial government.

According to The Telegram, the mayor said he didn’t care how safe the farm was: “We have one chance at good quality water that we have and in sufficient volumes to provide the city and the region for generations to come, and we have to protect that beyond the call of duty,” O’Keefe said.

Paraphrasing O’Keefe, The Telegram reported the former mayor said “too many environmental mistakes were made in the past and we’re still paying for them.”

Well said, Mayor O’Keefe. “We have to protect that beyond the call of duty.” But if you say it about St. John’s, why haven’t you spoken up about Labrador?

A clearer double standard could not be had. It also reeks of what has been referred to as environmental racism, a form of “structural racism [that] sanctions the stripping and toxification of Indigenous lands and the damaging of Indigenous peoples’ health,” as Alon Weinberg explained in a 2010 article for The Manitoban.

The white elites running the provincial capital deployed excessive caution in 2010 to protect their own homes and families and communities from the purported (yet not scientifically proven) dangers of an organic farm, yet the provincial government—also comprised of white wealthy elites living in St. John’s—is willing to ignore scientifically proven evidence of health dangers from a massive energy project when it involves Indigenous communities across the Strait.

It’s important to talk about these double standards. They signify more than just cynical ignorance and rural exploitation on the part of power-brokers in St. John’s. They signify a deliberate and ongoing act of environmental racism by the leadership of Nalcor and its bosses in the provincial government.

For Stan Marshall, CEO of Nalcor, Muskrat Falls is just a “boondoggle”. But Muskrat Falls is more than just a boondoggle — it’s a boondoggle that will harm generations of Indigenous Peoples in Labrador. That’s what we need to be talking about. And that’s what we need to be taking action on.

It’s not too late.

But in a matter of days it will be.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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