Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Waiting Game

The Waiting Game
By: Ryan Young

It has been a long night and I am still trying to process the events of the last 24 hours. After a marathon meeting between government and aboriginal leaders, and an accompanying protest on the steps of Confederation Building, an agreement has been reached on the methylmercury issue at Muskrat Falls.

Confederation Building was on lockdown for more than 12 hours. Media were left not-so-patiently waiting inside for word, with not much to do but tweet and listen to the jovial atmosphere of the protesters and land protectors singing and dancing outside on the front steps. The numbers outside fluctuated between 50 and 100 for most of the day and night, despite the cold. They were all waiting for word on how the government would deal with the situation at Muskrat Falls.

In a statement released to media just before 2am, the leaders have agreed to review the documentation provided by Nalcor that supports the need for immediate initial impoundment of the reservoir over the next few days. If they are satisfied that the reasons provided by Nalcor are legitimate, water levels will be raised to minimum acceptable levels.

In addition, the statement says that Nalcor will release the dam in the spring when environmental hazards are no longer an issue, and allow the river to return to its natural flow which will facilitate the opportunity for additional mitigation procedures that MAY include clearing trees, vegetation, and/or soil from the reservoir.

All parties also agreed to establish an Independent Expert Advisory Committee that will include representatives from all levels of government, as well as all Labrador indigenous governments and councils. This committee will be mandated to seek an independent, evidence-based approach that will determine and recommend options for mitigating human health concerns related to methylmercury.

At this point, there are still many unanswered questions, and I expect that the government will be speaking out over the next few days to try to clarify what the agreement means. Initial reactions from protesters and land protectors were not all positive, but most are waiting for more clarification. The hunger strikers in Ottawa seemed to be initially pleased with the agreement, with a picture on twitter showing them with arms raised, with the caption “we won.” I am sure reaction will continue to be mixed in the days to come as government-speak gets translated into layman English and we start to understand what it all means.

I am not sure if this will convince land protectors on-site at Muskrat Falls to stop their peaceful protest and go home, but I expect that many are waiting on their lead before passing judgement on the agreement. With a court order forcing the departure of The Independent journalist, Justin Brake, from the camp on Tuesday, there has been very little word getting out to the public on what is happening inside the camp. Most likely phones will be ringing through the night as people on all sides try to figure things out.

Some of the questions already being asked are; “How high are the minimum acceptable levels for flooding?” Will methylmercury levels spike immediately after impoundment as suggested by Harvard?” Will the cold weather impact methylmercury production?” “Will the release of the dam in the spring cause an immediate spike in methylmercury in Lake Melville?” “What about the North Spur?” These are all legitimate questions and they must be answered along with many more before people are willing to accept this agreement and stand down.

In the last week, we have witnessed Muskrat Falls go from a local issue to a national and international issue. People in high places are paying attention, and every statement and decision is being examined under a microscope. People are skeptical of trusting the government and/or Nalcor, and neither one of them has given the people much reason to alleviate that skepticism.  The next day or two will be key for the government in getting its message and its evidence out to the public both quickly and clearly. The people have made it quite clear that they will not stand for back-door politics and the premier and his ministers will need to be very public and up-front about the situation, no matter which way it goes for them with the protesters and the land protectors.

As for what will happen next, we will have to wait and see. If the land protectors are satisfied that the agreement is a fair compromise and leave the work-site at Muskrat Falls things will settle down a bit for the time being with energies likely being focused on holding the local and provincial governments to task and continuing to discuss the safety of the north spur. If they are not satisfied, the government will have to decide on using police to forcefully remove them and protests will likely escalate in Labrador, on the island, and across the country. It will be a tense few days ahead, but all we can do now is watch and wait and see how the situation unfolds.

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