It had seemed like a job well done at the time, but it didn't last very long.
Now, instead of being a fine example for all road builders in Labrador to follow, it has become a lesson in the consequences of not doing a proper environmental impact assessment. In this case the cost included thousands of dead fish and an extra $48,000 bill for the taxpayers of the province.
Blind Hill, Labrador, is not a real place, but it's nonetheless well known to those who regularly drive Route 520 between Sheshatshiu, North West River and Happy Valley-Goose Bay. Until last summer "blind hill" were words of warning painted on an official sign beside a sharp curve leading up a steep rise to a dangerously hidden intersection. More than one serious car crash occurred within sight of that sign over the years, so when the Department of Transportation and Works undertook to raise the roadbed (it's also a location that sometimes floods in the springtime) and to straighten out the treacherous length of highway, few if any people objected. On the contrary, the solid new foundation and the smooth new pavement were warmly welcomed by most if not all of the local commuters - albeit with the common wistful wish that all the highways in Labrador could be built so well, not just one little section.
Unfortunately the upgrade turned out to be flawed.
Just below Blind Hill, Route 520 crosses an ox-bow of the Goose River, a body of water rich in plant, bird, insect, mammal and fish life - the kind of place normally intended to be protected by environmental regulations. However, since culverts had already existed at the site before the upgrade work was to commence (the highway has been there for decades) there was no regulatory need to assess any new risks to wildlife and habitat. The federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans gave its approval.
The work was completed fairly quickly in July and everything seemed fine until October, when the water levels in the ox-bow dropped below the bottom of the two new meter-wide culverts and the downstream channel turned into a shallow creek. One particular species of small fish, known locally as cushies, and more generally as stickleback, were prevented from migrating upstream because they could no longer make the jump. Fish being fish, they still tried and, in trying, they died by the thousands - last fall and even into this summer. When workers dug up the road last week to replace one of the year-old culverts with a wider, deeper one, they reported finding masses of dead stickleback in the earth. The small silvery carcasses are still scattered throughout the newly disturbed dirt and stones beside the dredged waterway.
The new culvert has a good chance of solving the problem. Not only is it wider and deep enough to stay at least partially submerged even during dry seasons, it has also been fitted with notched concrete dividers that control the flow of water and create a series of pools for fish migration inside the corrugated metal tube. Whether it will work to satisfaction has yet to be seen.
Fortunately, in this case the decision-makers at DFO and in the provincial transportation department had no trouble understanding why such little things like the stickleback fish that live in the Goose River valley should be worth even as much as $48,000: after all, if the bottom of the food chain dies out, what will the top of it eat?
These days governments all over Canada - but especially in Newfoundland and Labrador - are seeking to do fewer and less stringent environmental impact assessments for construction projects of all sizes, often arguing that they are largely unnecessary and always too expensive. If the situation at Blind Hill is any gauge, then they should be doing many more of them. Proper assessments may cost a bit more in time and money up front, but look what they can save in the end.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador
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