Open house to the same old story

Michael
Michael Johansen
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The scene at the Labrador Friendship Centre in Happy Valley-Goose Bay last week was quite familiar.
The large multi-purpose room had been taken over by Nalcor Energy, the latest proponent of the old, old idea of building two dams less than 100 kilometres away across the lower reaches of the Churchill River - or the "Grand," as many local people insist on calling it as a political gesture, still objecting to former Premier Joey Smallwood changing the name more than 50 years ago just to please the backers of the earlier hydro project.
This "open house," as the company calls it, is nothing new. It's only the latest of a long series of meetings, conferences, workshops, presentations and hearings that have been taking place for at least 30 years in Labrador and on the island.
All of them are concerned with a single topic: building the perennially imminent Muskrat Falls and Gull Island hydroelectric projects.
A half-dozen identically dressed Nalcor engineers and specialists help explain the information contained on the room's four upright displays and the table full of maps. That information, however, is only about one aspect of the project, that is, the transmission lines that reach from Gull Island all the way down to the Avalon, plus the extra "electrode line corridor" that would use Lake Melville as a ground whenever the main lines and towers need physical repairs. (The literature available says repairs would last "at most several days per year if major equipment replacement is required.")
The transmission lines are considered a stand-alone project, the Nalcor officials explain, because it was registered for the necessary environmental assessment later than the dam-building aspect and considering it separately makes it easier for everyone to understand, anyway.
Besides, even though there's no way the lines would be built unless the dams go in (since their main purpose is to transmit power to St. John's) the island's electrical system would be better off connected to the North American grid if it ever gets any surplus power to sell.
Many of the open-house guests were not especially receptive to what they were being told, especially those who prefer the river's old name - they've heard versions of the same thing many times as government after government resurrects the Lower Churchill plans and pours tens of millions of dollars into trying to convince everybody that it would be a good thing for all. People have heard it before.
"We know more about it than they do," one guest said ironically about the obviously well-educated and well-rehearsed engineers who spoke knowledgeably on their topics.
Proponents of the Lower Churchill project have never been able to convince everyone that it will be "green," but that's of little consequence since it has never lived or died on the environmental question, no matter how much damage it would cause to Labrador's wilderness.
Every time a government has abandoned the Lower Churchill dream, it's because it could no more pass a fair economic review than an environmental one - it costs too much to build and it has no markets.
Unfortunately, the Lower Churchill, like the Churchill Falls development before it, has never been about economics. It's a political project designed to enhance the historical legacy of the premier who finally succeeds in bringing it into existence - apparently through sheer strength of will.
If ever electricity generation in this province becomes about economics instead of politics, Nalcor could look at its own literature to get some good ideas. One pamphlet available at the open house is titled "Boundless Energy," but it doesn't show a photo of either Muskrat Falls or the Gull Island rapids. Instead (and more accurately) the title labels a picture of a massive surf pounding the rugged island shore.
That's an image for a more sustainable future and not of a failed past. Instead of flogging a dead hydroelectric boondoggle, Nalcor could be spending its money productively and be at the forefront of developing large-scale wave farms and other up-and-coming ocean-based generation technologies.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: Labrador Friendship Centre, North American

Geographic location: Labrador, Gull Island, Muskrat Falls Happy Valley Goose Bay Churchill River Lake Melville St. John's

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  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:11

    The buzzword in this province is QUEBEC . Whenever the premier bandies that about , the hackles go up and the fight is on . Why confuse the issue with facts , when you can rally the people with highly charged hyperbole .

    Michael , this is a brave and insightful article .

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 19:47

    The buzzword in this province is QUEBEC . Whenever the premier bandies that about , the hackles go up and the fight is on . Why confuse the issue with facts , when you can rally the people with highly charged hyperbole .

    Michael , this is a brave and insightful article .