Dam talks, dam money, dam proponents, dam pollution

Michael Johansen
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Battlelines are about to be drawn in meeting rooms across Labrador between those who want to build more hydroelectric dams on the Churchill River and those who don't.
As if to make up for completely ignoring the environment when the provincial government's energy-corporation-of-the-day built the hugely destructive Churchill Falls hydro station, the latest government-directed proponent (Nalcor something-or-other) for building dams at Gull Island and Muskrat Falls has released the third detailed environmental impact study (EIS) of the possible impacts of the projects on the Churchill River watershed and surrounding areas.
Now, once again, there are to be public consultations to discuss the proponent's findings and conclusions and if experience is any guide, they should be lively gatherings.
On the one side are people like Frank Moores, Brian Peckford, Tom Rideout, Clyde Wells, Brian Tobin, Beaton Tulk, Roger Grimes and Danny Williams. While they're rarely, if ever, at the consultations in person, it's they who have the great visions of the huge amounts of money two new dams will bring into government coffers and into the pockets of private investors - claiming all the while the project only serves the greater good.
On the other side are people like Elizabeth Penashue and Clarice Blake-Rudkowski - the former an Innu elder who has known the river all her life and still carefully watches how it changes year by year; the latter, once the head of a development group, now at the forefront of a movement for preserving the river she can see out the windows of her own home. Their argument is simple: the river is precious and valuable enough as it is and its wealth of habitat and natural beauty should not be destroyed forever for mere monetary gain.
At this point the proponents usually wave this argument aside, saying it's of little importance because it's based on emotion. They counter it with the facts as they see them - which brings us to the latest environmental impact statement - but their facts always need close examination.
While, in its opening pages, the proponent claims it is dedicated to preventing pollution - especially to reducing greenhouse gas emissions - it doesn't actually propose to do anything about the ones they'll be producing, beyond measuring the expected increase. Instead, it characterizes the rise resulting from drowned vegetation and terrain as being "negligible," even though an earlier Hydro statement admits emissions will increase continually for four to five years and won't go back down to normal for another decade.
As well, while the EIS assigns its highest pollution rating (a two) to many of the activities to be undertaken during construction - hundreds of machines, big and small, will be spewing exhaust, for instance - it passes these emissions off as "low."
The proponent won't draw up a management plan unless they get upgraded to "medium."
However, on the question of greenhouse gases the proponent's stand has always been that, overall, the Lower Churchill project is good because it can replace an oil-fired generator on the island. Unfortunately, the proponent never says it will actually happen - only that it's possible. Given that the real reason for building this megaproject is to make more mega-money for the already mega-rich, how will Nalcor's shareholders react when they're asked to take fewer profits?
At any rate, this just points out that even though a battle is about to be fought over the environment, the war will be won or lost elsewhere. If history is any guide the project will either collapse again under its own financial weight (the proponents have added yet another billion dollars to the estimated construction costs), or politics of one kind or another will bring it to a crashing halt. Seeing that the much-vaunted New Dawn deal - which was supposed to pave the way for the development as far as the Innu are concerned - is facing so much opposition in the communities that the Innu Nation has indefinitely postponed a referendum on the matter, then it doesn't look like it will help the cause much, after all.
The New Dawn just might bring to an end instead.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: New Dawn

Geographic location: Labrador, Churchill River, Gull Island

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