Pity poor Nalcor. Things were going so well for the company, but lately it’s run into some trouble with a few pesky bits of rock.
Frustrated: that’s how the gung-ho folks at the province’s public energy corporation must feel. After years of government pampering, Nalcor has grown so rich and so powerful at the taxpayers’ expense that it looked like no one could prevent it from building its favourite multi-billion-dollar boondoggle in the middle of Labrador — nothing could even slow it down. That is, until now.
Nalcor might be forgiven its arrogant complacency. After all, the company has a long record of successfully overcoming all obstacles in its headlong rush to build yet more dams on Labrador’s Grand River.
Aboriginal opposition? Give the joint ventures fat contracts and forgive the New Dawners their huge unpaid hydro bills.
Environmental assessment? Bamboozle them all by calling the megaproject “green” and keep repeating the line that there will be no real harm caused to any species or habitat.
Nowhere to sell the electricity? Just keep wasting power on the island, give some away free to Nova Scotia and sell the rest to New England at less than a quarter of the cost of production and transmission. Oh, New England won’t buy it? OK — so we try our luck on the open market.
The mind-bogglingly humongous cost? What’s six or seven (or nine or 10) billion dollars? Get the federal government to co-sign a loan and let our children and grandchildren pay back the debt.
Local opposition? Please! Since when does any dam builder have to worry about what local people think?
The provincial House of Assembly? The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador? Are you kidding? Actually wait for duly elected officials to debate and decide
on whether to start construction? No way! No self-respecting energy mega-corporation needs permission to do anything. If Nalcor wants to jump the gun and spend $264 million to cut roads and string electrical lines all over central Labrador, it will — simple as that.
But then, last year, researchers with Memorial University started making some inconvenient archeological discoveries along the ancient portage on the south bank of Muskrat Falls. They found stones that had been altered by human hands: flakes, worked cobbles and at least one scraper. The artifacts are the remains of a pre-contact Innu culture — one, as it turns out, that traded with peoples even more distant.
Luckily, the folks at Nalcor have never met a problem they couldn’t dodge — or try to, at least.
“Under legislation we are
not permitted to disturb these resources,” Gilbert Bennett, a Nalcor vice-president, admitted to the CBC a few weeks ago. However, he added: “We’re doing the investigation on a planned basis. We’re not interfering with our construction plans.”
To make sure the stones don’t interfere with any of the company’s plans, Nalcor declared a single area on the south side to have a high potential for archeological interest. Nalcor detailed its own archeologists to search this area alone “for signs of some activity in the past.” Bennett maintained that there are no other such “high potential” areas anywhere near Muskrat Falls — although he admitted there are a few more that will be flooded by the reservoir.
But then, just last week, the MUN researchers found a spear point made of rare, imported Ramah chert — not in the designated archeological area outside the construction zone, but on the north portage, right in the middle of where the dam is supposed to be built.
If Nalcor concedes what this latest of many discoveries suggests, that all the land around Muskrat Falls is rich with untold centuries of human culture, that the “footprint” of its hydroelectric dam will crush a priceless treasure-store of prehistory, then by law the company is required to put all work on hold — not just its premature preparation work, but the construction of the whole Lower Churchill hydroelectric project itself.
Nalcor’s in a quandary. It recognizes its duty, but it’s loath to delay work even for a day. That might explain why researchers have been accused of planting fake artifacts and why Innu Nation monitors are barred from all construction sites.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.