The word “disappointed” is “too light a word” to describe how Robin Goodfellow-Baikie felt Thursday, as she read provincial and federal government responses to a report by a joint environmental panel on the development of the Lower Churchill.
A Labrador resident and town councillor with North West River, Goodfellow-Baikie participated in public meetings.
“It’s an assault on the environment in Labrador and what we gain is questionable,” she said when contacted by The Telegram.
The project’s joint environmental review panel held 30 days of public hearings in nine locations from March 3 to April 15, 2011. Those meetings led to a final report in August 2011, with 83 recommendations that required government response.
The recommendations focused on environmental concerns, but also touched on potential economic and social impacts of the development.
A recommendation for an independent review of a “no project” alternative for supplying power to the province was dismissed by both levels of government — a main source of Goodfellow-Baikie’s disappointment.
However, recommendations for a compensation plan for any affected wetlands and environmental monitoring were accepted.
The federal government also committed “to monitoring and follow-up programs associated with federal regulatory approvals.”
The provincial Department of Environment’s water resources management division will approve plans to be submitted by Nalcor Energy addressing the case of a catastrophic dam failure.
Other recommendations touched on conservation work already ongoing, for example the province’s update of a recovery plan for the Red Wine Mountain caribou (set to be released later this year).
Mercury still at issue
Yet some recommendations raised “downstream” dam issues, one being the potential for mercury build-up in wildlife in the Churchill River and Lake Melville.
There is a study submitted to the panel, “Duration and Extent of Elevated Mercury levels in downstream fish following reservoir creation,” by M. Robin Anderson, a member of the environmental sciences division of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It focuses on the effects of the Upper Churchill development since the mid-1970s.
“Fish downstream of the Smallwood Reservoir showed significantly elevated levels of mercury following the creation of the reservoir,” Anderson states.
The Nunatsiavut Government also raised concerns on the subject.
Their written submissions to the panel included a paper by Dr. Elsie Sunderland, a professor of aquatic science in the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Sunderland found a “lack of data in the downstream environment” on mercury levels.
However, “the human health risk assessment associated with the Lower Churchill project suggests that some indigenous people are already avoiding fish and country food as a main food source because of fears about mercury contamination since flooding of the Upper Churchill,” she found.
“In my expert opinion, there will likely be some increases in biological methylmercury concentrations throughout Lake Melville, although the magnitude of these changes is highly uncertain.”
The panel recommended a pilot study for mercury mitigation and a deeper assessment of downstream impacts.
In response, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans will be requiring Nalcor “to collect additional baseline data on bioaccumulation of methylmercury in fish and on fish habitat” and to conduct a “comprehensive multi-year program to monitor and report on bioaccumulation of methyl mercury in fish (including seals).”
The province said Nalcor “should take the lead” on mercury monitoring.
Project has the go-ahead
Goodfellow-Baikie said she feels too much is being left to Nalcor Energy.
For its part, the Crown corporation is reviewing the government statements.
Meanwhile, “this project will help create jobs, position Atlantic Canada for long-term prosperity and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver.
MP Peter Penashue highlighted the estimated $2.1 billion in income from the project for provincial labour and business and $340 million in tax revenue for the province.
“As you know this project has been on the books for a very long time and it has been discussed with many different people — both non-aboriginal and aboriginal peoples,” he said. “I’m just very, very proud to be a part of it.”
The project is now released from environmental assessment, but will require authorizations from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada, in relation to planned impacts on fish habitat and navigable waters, before construction.