The Government of Nunatsiavut wants both the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Nalcor Energy to respond to calls for further consultation on the Muskrat Falls hydro project.
Members of the aboriginal government flew to St. John’s for a news conference at the Sheraton Hotel Wednesday morning, telling reporters their concerns over potential environmental and socioeconomic effects of the project, as identified by the joint provincial-federal environmental review panel.
“We want to make it quite clear that Labrador Inuit have well-established aboriginal rights and titles downstream from Muskrat Falls, and these rights are constitutionally protected in the Labrador Inuit Land Claims Agreement,” said Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo.
“We fully expect the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador as well as the Government of Canada to respect that agreement.”
The Labrador Inuit Settlement Area reaches across the eastern two-thirds of Lake Melville and a main concern for the Nunatsiavut government is the level of mercury within the lake.
The fear is the development of the Lower Churchill will increase methylmercury levels, negatively affecting the health and lives of thousands of Inuit people.
Since the environmental review, the Nunatsiavut government has spent $150,000 to launch a research and monitoring project aimed at providing baseline information on mercury for the whole of Lake Melville.
The research program started this summer. A total $1.5 million has been spent to date, including the initial investment and support subsequently leveraged from independent researchers.
“We know, right from this, that the Churchill River acts as a source of mercury to Lake Melville,” said Nunatsiavut’s Director of Environment, Tom Sheldon, on the early results.
The study is set to continue into 2013.
“Given the clear lack of work done by Nalcor and the Newfoundland and Labrador government, we have approached both Nalcor and the Newfoundland and Labrador government to provide funding and resources to help with our program,” said First Minister Darryl Shiwak. “To date these requests have fallen on deaf ears.”
Leo said letters to the provincial government have gone unanswered and suggested the Inuit were being ignored.
“I don’t fully understand the comment that they feel like they’ve been ignored. I think that we don’t agree with them on everything, but being consulted and being respected and being ignored are different things,” provincial Minister of Natural Resources Jerome Kennedy told reporters at the House of Assembly.
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That said, he added, “In terms of listening and discussing, certainly we’re always open to that.”
Joint panel assessment
As The Telegram reported in March, one study was submitted during the environmental review of the project relating to mercury titled “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 reported.
Panel submissions contained a separate 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 when it comes to mercury levels downstream from the Churchill River dams.
Yet, “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,” she stated.
In its final report Aug. 23, 2011, the environmental review panel recommended the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) require Nalcor Energy to do a pilot study looking at mercury and other potential downstream impacts, before damming the Lower Churchill.
“I think it’s fair to say that during the hearings, during the environmental assessment, there was a difference of opinion between us and Nunatsiavut on this issue, but I think from a followup perspective, we will continue to extend our monitoring program as far as we need to go in order to make sure that we capture the effects,” said Nalcor Energy vice-president Gilbert Bennett Wednesday afternoon.
Bennett said Nalcor is still not expecting to see effects far downstream of Muskrat Falls, reaching into the Labrador Inuit Settlement Area, but will expand its monitoring program, as needed, to capture all effects of the project.
“What I would say is that both governments have recognized the importance of the issue. We certainly recognize the importance of the issue. We have a followup and effects monitoring program planned and that program will roll out should we sanction the project,” he said.