Back in October, the provincial government announced it was requiring Nalcor to do more work at the Muskrat Falls reservoir, including Nalcor paying for a methylmercury study, “to be conducted by Dr. Elsie Sunderland’s research laboratory at Harvard University.”
That would have been quite a “get.”
You can understand the political optics involved in wanting Sunderland to do the work: her role in highlighting methylmercury risks in Labrador made her involvement a real plus, bringing, in a way, a critic onside.
But then, Harvard said the kind of work the province had announced wasn’t something that Sunderland actually did.
So Environment Minister Perry Trimper fired off a letter to Harvard on Oct. 21 — a lengthy letter which he made public — demanding an explanation.
“I ask that you immediately address two matters of importance. (1) Please clarify the scope of Dr. Sunderland’ s work in the area of methylmercury monitoring, an activity which (assistant dean for communications Paul) Karoff claims she does not, and would not, do. (2) Please indicate whether Harvard University endorses Dr. Sunderland’s methylmercury research and its relationship to our ongoing hydroelectric project.”
Then, the issue abruptly vanished. Until now.
Trouble was, Trimper was only muddying the waters. He was confusing two issues: one, whether Sunderland did methylmercury research, and a separate one — whether her research team would actually take on long-term commercial monitoring. Yes to the first — no to the second.
If Trimper had waited until later that same afternoon, his own staff could have answered his questions without the embarrassing two-page letter to Harvard.
That’s when his officials received an email from Sunderland, saying, “I was disappointed to see a CBC news story on Oct. 19 indicating my involvement with proposed work involving Nalcor and the province without any direct communication with me or agreement about my involvement.
“The work I had discussed directly with the Nunatsiavut Government was intended as a temporary stop gap measure until the province could identify a suitable lab to perform the monitoring work associated with Muskrat Falls and we had no formal agreement in place for proceeding. … I think the news coverage on this issue is diverting attention from the ongoing and important discussions surrounding Muskrat Falls that are taking place.”
Even as early as Oct. 11, Carl McLean with the Nunatsiavut Government had been saying the same thing, telling the province that while it was looking for a lab able to do the monitoring, “In the interim Elsie has offered their lab for the short term until this problem has been resolved.”
That “short term” was to have been 16 weeks, at a relatively reasonable cost of $80,841 — a cost that Trimper was unfortunately publicly touting as “substantial.”
Trimper should have known that the Harvard lab wouldn’t be doing long-term monitoring anyway. The department’s own rules excluded Harvard’s labs from it. The department’s policies, outlined in the methylmercury plan that his officials were crafting, spell out that “the department requires the use of commercial laboratories, which have a recognized from of laboratory accreditation to perform the analyses.”
And senior officials in the department had already been blunt: “We should not use Elsie’s lab. Thanks,” wrote Haseen Khan, the director of the province’s water management division, also on Oct. 11.
Trojan Horse one, Perry Trimper zero.
And a tempest in a test-tube.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com — Twitter: @Wangersky.