Muskrat Falls: Will the Madness Never End?
By: Ryan Young
In the wake of the fallout from last week’s budget, the Liberals and Nalcor were dealt another blow to their credibility on Monday when the Nunatsiavut government released the full report of the Harvard study on methylmercury. The study, led by Dr. Elsie Sunderland, reports that the downstream effects of methylmercury in relation to the Muskrat Falls project will be 13 to 380 percent higher than was predicted in the original environmental impact assessment for the project.
To catch my loyal readers up on the issue at hand, methylmercury is a toxic compound that is formed from naturally occurring inorganic mercury by the action of anaerobic organisms that live in aquatic systems and oceans. Through the methylation process, inorganic mercury is converted to methylmercury in the natural environment. In layman terms, bacteria in aquatic environments break down organic matter such as vegetation and convert it into the toxic methylmercury compound. Methylmercury is commonly found in small amounts in aquatic systems but in terms of Muskrat Falls, the amount of methylmercury that will be produced is directly related to the available organic carbon content of reservoirs derived from flooded soils and vegetation. Nalcor has only committed to clearing a small amount of the vegetation in the area where the reservoir flooding will take place. The residents of the Lake Melville area had their fears about a possible dramatic rise in methylmercury when the reservoir is flooded confirmed by the release of yesterday’s report.
The study suggests that anywhere from 30-200 residents could see exposure to toxic methylmercury that exceed the acceptable levels set out by Health Canada. Of particular concern is for the people of Mud Lake and Rigolet. Many residents there still depend on local game and forage for a large part of their diet. With the toxicity numbers outlined in the study, it will only be a matter of time before we start to see direct health effects on the people who live downstream from Muskrat Falls. Methylmercury is primarily a central nervous system toxin. In adults, dietary exposure can affect cardiovascular health, immune health, and hormone function. Even more disturbingly, chronic exposure from dietary consumption has been linked with brain impairment in children, including IQ deficits, attention deficit behavior, and reductions in verbal function and memory. These are very serious and very real concerns and the people living in the Lake Melville now have the facts to back them.
So where does Nalcor stand in all of this? While a spokesperson for the crown corporation said that “we will take the time to study the findings further,” VP of the lower Churchill project Gilbert Bennett was quick to say that “we do not predict that the creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir will heighten risk to people in Lake Melville.” Bennett maintained that environmental studies for the project “have been undertaken by nationally-recognized technical experts.” While this is no doubt true, it is hard for anyone, lest of all Gilbert Bennett, to criticize the credentials of the study. Harvard University cannot be brushed off as a biased neigh-sayer. They are one of the most respected research institutions in the world and this report demands serious consideration by Nalcor. For Gilbert Bennett or anyone else to shrug this study off is nothing but pure contempt for the people of Lake Melville.
On the other side of the issue, the Nunatsiavut government says they are considering “all options,” including the courts, to force Nalcor to clear the reservoir before flooding. Nunatsiavut president Sarah Leo told media that the concerns are valid and that the culture and health of the Inuit people living near Lake Melville is being directly threatened from the development of Muskrat Falls. Nalcor has stated that it will issue warnings about consuming fish and seals when methylmercury levels spike. Leo says that is unacceptable and that this study confirms their fears about long-term toxicity. Her message to Nalcor was: “until full clearing is carried out, flooding must not be allowed. It’s as simple as that.”
So where does that leave us? The brass at Nalcor have all but outright said that they will disregard this study and continue with their plans to flood the reservoir without clearing it. In the grand scheme of things, people like Gilbert Bennett and Ed Martin can’t be expected to care about 200 Inuit when they have six figure salaries and big bonuses at stake. For Nalcor it will be business as usual. I fully suspect that the Nunatsiavut government will file a court challenge based on the Harvard study. Whether or not it is successful, it might certainly add further delays to an already over-delayed project. Frankly this issue should have stopped the project in the environmental assessment stage. It makes this blogger wonder what strings were pulled to push it through in the first place.
For many people in this province, the Muskrat Falls project has been all about cost. With the release of the study yesterday, however, it is very clear that we have an ethical and environmental dilemma on our hands as well. Instead of measuring the project in dollars in sense we now have to think about it in terms of the environment and human life. Is it worth it? If I was sitting on the fence about shutting down Muskrat Falls now, this issue would push me over the edge. With a price tag that will likely reach $15 billion or more, a little more to clear the reservoir and spare the people of Lake Melville is not too much to ask for…unless you are Nalcor. The people of this province need to stand firm with the Nunatsiavut government and demand that Nalcor take action on this issue. If not we will all bear the responsibility of hundreds of our own in Labrador, sick or dying, to keep the lights on in Nova Scotia. I don’t want that on my conscience. Do you?