Permits have strong strings attached: Nalcor

Barb Sweet
Published on June 7, 2014
Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s vice-president for the Lower Churchill project and Marion Organ, Nalcor’s environmental services manager, view a map of the Shoal Cove area which contains Long’s Braya, a rare plant found nowhere else. — Photo by Barb Sweet/The Telegram

Permits granted for the Labrador-Maritime transmission project aren’t meant to be waivers for the Endangered Species Act, and contain conditions to ensure the protection of at-risk plants, animals and birds, say Nalcor officials.

“I don’t think anybody is suggesting we repeal the Endangered Species Act and throw away the regulations,” said Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s vice-president in charge of the Lower Churchill hydroelectric project.

“There are projects in the province — we happen to be a high-profile one — that need to be assessed and if they are in the public interest, you look at that and say, ‘What terms and conditions go along with that permit in order to ensure the endangered species and other aspects of the environment are appropriately protected?’”

Bennett and Marion Organ, Nalcor’s environmental services manager, were reacting to criticisms of economic activity permits issued in 2013 and March of this year to Nalcor and NSP Maritime Link Inc. under the Endangered Species Act. Signed off on by former environment and conservation ministers, the permits affect nearly 20 endangered species, including Long’s Braya, a plant whose only location in the world is the limestone barrens of the Northern Peninsula.

Section 19 permits have never been granted there before. Environmentalists Bill Montevecchi and Ian Goudie have expressed concern about the precedent.

Montevecchi, a Memorial University biologist and a member of the advisory committee which makes recommendations to the provincial government regarding endangered species, was not aware the permits were issued until he was contacted by The Telegram.

Bennett said it’s the Department of the Environment and Conservation’s job to set conditions and enforce the law, which he feels will safeguard the environment, regardless of the government’s support of the Lower Churchill project.

“The staff in the Department of Environment and Conservation are professionals in their field of expertise and they take their role very seriously,” Bennett said.

Organ said while the permits are unprecedented, now that there is a framework there may be more of them in future for other projects, especially as more endangered species are listed.

Both Bennett and Organ pointed out that there are stringent mitigation and monitoring plans in place for the transmission link project based on prior surveys, and more surveys will be done if needed. And if more species are added to the endangered list, those will be taken into account.

Annual reports will not only be submitted to government, but posted on the project’s website, Organ said.

As for the Long’s Braya, Nalcor has funded an environmental officer from the provincial wildlife division to keep tabs on that plant. Nalcor also has other environmental monitors.

The Long’s Braya is located in a no-go zone as far as workers go, said Organ, adding Nalcor will be posting public awareness signs about the plant for Environment and Conservation.

Bennett said it wasn’t feasible to move the Shoal Cove site, and the drill pad location is outside Long’s Braya habitat.

Organ said workers and management have been trained about all the endangered species and how to avoid affecting them or their habitats.

Work is also scheduled around crucial periods, such as when birds are nesting in areas that the project crosses paths with, she noted.

Caribou are collared and tracked. Bennett noted that some right-of-way work has been put on hold in Labrador because Red Wine caribou are in the area.

“The importance of the permit is not in the exemption, but the importance is in the conditions that are applied to the permit,” said Bennett, who noted the transmission and generation projects also went through years’ long environmental assessments that allowed input from interest groups.

“I have a high degree of confidence that we are avoiding interacting with those species.”

Bennett also pointed out that Nalcor on its own decided to reroute some of the transmission link to avoid interaction with caribou habitat, a choice that cost millions of dollars.

Organ said Nalcor welcomes any questions from the public about its efforts.

“(The conditions on the permits) give us a vehicle to make sure we live up to the commitments we made during the environmental process,” Organ said.

“The legislation has been around for a long time. Here we have a reason where it should happen and it’s in the public interest. The permits and terms of conditions are mechanisms to do that,” Bennett added.

“The conditions are extensive. We knew they were going to be extensive going into the process. This is not a surprise to us. Environmental management on the project is an important role.”