A small van waits as a man and woman, activists both, stock it for a three-day drive. They’re underway soon after sunrise, off to pick up a third person and then to join up with another car heading west on the Trans-Labrador Highway. Their destination: federal court in Ottawa where a judge will hear legal arguments against the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.
The two cars that sped down Route 500’s new tarmac — perhaps slowing as they passed the old turnoff to Muskrat Falls — made what might have been the smallest civil rights caravan in history.
Small, however, does not mean insignificant.
Regardless of the outcome (the verdict won’t come out for weeks) the challenge three groups are posing to the lacklustre attitude the provincial and federal governments take towards protecting Canada’s natural environment is one that should be made as often as possible until it finally sticks.
The case presented by the lawyer for Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, the NunatuKavut Community Council and the Sierra Club of Canada contends that the joint provincial/federal review panel tasked to assess the environmental impact three dams and two reservoirs will have on the Churchill River and its environs did not finish its job and that it should be made to do so.
The groups are concerned that the panel did not consider the full cumulative effects of all projects, or make an independent study of the need for electricity generated by the dams, or examine all feasible alternatives to the megaproject.
As critical as the Joint Review Panel was of many aspects of Nalcor’s approach to mitigating the harm the dams will cause, it allowed several areas of concern to be overlooked — not just past and continuing impacts from Churchill Falls.
Nalcor avoided discussing any fresh downstream effects caused by new damming, despite considerable evidence that the ecology of Lake Melville and adjoining bodies of water was damaged by the original development and could be harmed even more by a new one.
Worry over that particular overlooked aspect was recently raised in the House of Assembly by the Torngat Mountains MHA, who is raising alarm over abnormally high mercury levels. Typically, the Newfoundland government dismissed the Labradorian’s concerns and indicated that an environmental problem on the island took precedence over one in Labrador.
Namely, a questionable promise to close down the dirty oil-fired plant at Holyrood gives the government a justification to ignore any poisons found in Hamilton Inlet.
The minister’s further clarification, that his government is more concerned with the “overall footprint” than with any isolated aspect of the project, comes across as two-faced given the province’s support for splitting the assessment into easy-to-swallow portions. That is, the Joint Review Panel currently being considered by the Federal Court was prevented by design from examining the proposed Lower Churchill project as a whole, since a whole different process with its very own panel was set up to assess the long transmission lines. That process has yet to be completed.
If the judge rules that the federal government was premature in releasing the proposed hydroelectric megaproject from full environmental scrutiny, the three claimants will be asking the court to order that same government to deny Newfoundland its highly desired multi-billion-dollar loan guarantee and all the permits Nalcor needs to continue work.
Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy has promised the province will abide by the court’s ruling, whatever it may be, but there’s little doubt the Progressive-Conservatives are planning ways to proceed with the project regardless.
If the proponents fail to convince the judge that all the money Nalcor has already spent on unsanctioned work justifies even more spending, the province might face a long delay, if not outright cancellation of the project.
Nalcor’s only recourse against losing permits is to hope the federal government delays implementing the Federal Court’s orders — not an unprecedented action.
If, however, the court only orders the prime minister not to co-sign for the Nalcor debt, the Newfoundland government will have less trouble weathering the setback. The government treats the loan guarantee as something of supreme importance, but in truth it’s only a way to save a few millions off the final price tag. Construction can continue without it.
Michael Johansen is a writer
living in Labrador.