No one seems much concerned that the Lower Churchill environmental assessment panel won’t be releasing its report on time — nor should anyone be.
A panel of five accomplished individuals just spent 45 days listening to a host of presenters who are in favour of building more hydroelectric dams across Labrador’s Churchill River, and then to another host of different presenters who are dead set against it.
Panel members also have to read a mountain of paperwork from the proponents and then they have another mountain from those opposed once they’re done with the first.
The five people on the panel were supposed to have digested all this conflicting information, formed opinions around it, arrived at conclusions from it, formulated recommendations concerning it, written a report about it and delivered that report to the federal minister of the environment (if there still is one) and to two Newfoundland cabinet ministers (those responsible for the environment and for intergovernmental affairs) by July 14, but they missed the deadline. They wrote to the ministers to explain that there was just too much stuff to get through and they promised (cross their hearts) that they will have something in by the end of August.
They should take all the time they need. They have a difficult job balancing the opposing claims. Nalcor Energy says that building a hydroelectric megaproject in the middle of Labrador will actually improve the environment by flooding a reservoir to create new fish habitat and also by allowing a distant, island-based, oil-fired generator to be decommissioned.
However, many protest that the facility and the construction of it and all its attendant needs (namely the reservoir and the long transmission and grounding lines) will seriously hurt the environment. Opponents say it will scar hitherto untouched landscape, drown the vital habitat of numerous species of plants and animals, erase the awesome natural beauty that is Muskrat Falls and its environs and disrupt the downstream ecologies of both the river and of the Hamilton Inlet through silting and changes in water-flow patterns.
They add that the reservoir will not only release extra mercury into the stream (thus poisoning more of the river’s fish population and all who feed on the fish), but it will also emit considerable amounts of the highly potent greenhouse gas methane into the atmosphere.
Fortunately for the panel members, their job is not to decide the fate of the four-decade-old Lower Churchill proposal.
At one time, but only very rarely, environmental assessments could actually stop megaprojects, even after construction had begun — if the panel determined that the damage was too onerous to repair. But that was in the long-ago and no one expects the five members of this panel to cancel the Lower Churchill. That’s not what they were appointed to do.
This panel’s job is mitigation. They must take every example of possible hurt to the environment, determine the real dangers and figure out ways to mitigate the harm. The job is first and foremost to make sure the project can proceed, not to protect Mother Nature.
Until the terms of reference granted to environmental assessment panels are altered to give their word more weight, they will remain mere sounding boards for public opposition to money-driven megaprojects, merely able to report and recommend — not a loud voice for their own sound judgment, but only a whisper in the king’s ear.
For the decisions of an assessment panel to have any real clout, the panel should be tasked not with mitigating harm, but with first determining the true scope of possible hurt and to decide whether or not the apparent costs outweigh the possible benefits.
Unfortunately for Muskrat Falls and the Churchill River, that’s not what will be determined after the report is finally submitted. In fact, the report won’t affect the issue one way or another — no matter that five accomplished panel members spent months studying all the important questions to provide their most reasoned opinions.
The final decision on building hydro dams in Labrador rests with the Newfoundland government, and that government made up its mind to go ahead 40 years ago.
Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.