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Advisory committee recommendations about Muskrat Falls deserve action: chair

Boating across Lake Melville. This photo was provided by the Nunatsiavut Government, at the time of the release of “Our Environment, Our Health,” a report from the Indigenous government on new science and new understanding of the risk of methylmercury from Muskrat Falls leading to consumption advisories and interruption to fishing, hunting and daily life.
Lake Melville. - Contributed

Important to spread message Lake Melville area fish, seal safe to eat

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Premier Dwight Ball is preparing for a meeting with Indigenous leaders to discuss methylmercury and the recommendations of the Independent Expert Advisory Committee (IEAC) for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.

The Telegram was told the expectation is the meeting will take place “in a matter of days.”

While on VOCM Open Line radio on Monday morning, Ball acknowledged universal support for three recommendations coming out of the IEAC last spring.

“The next step for us right now is to have our Indigenous leaders in and have a discussion of what that (response) would look like,” he told host Paddy Daly.

The chair of the now-dissolved IEAC, Ken Reimer, recently told The Telegram he doesn’t want to get involved in the politics, but he is surprised an independent body hasn’t already been established to address methylmercury. It was one of four recommendations made in the IEAC’s final report in April 2018.

The committee recommended the independent body look at the design and implementation of a community-based monitoring program for the project, building a working relationship with people in the area and later advising on when certain response actions should occur if methylmercury levels hit certain benchmarks.

Reimer said, among other things, it could review any relevant, new information — including the data and reports issued by Nalcor Energy and its consultants since the IEAC’s work concluded — providing commentary for the public, given clear fear over the neurotoxin and distrust of Nalcor and the province.

“It’s been very frustrating since we haven’t had any response to the four recommendations we made almost one year ago,” Reimer told The Telegram in a March telephone interview.

“It’s been very frustrating since we haven’t had any response to the four recommendations we made almost one year ago." — Ken Reimer

The IEAC was a nine-member committee, with six scientists and three Indigenous knowledge experts. It reported to a second-level, a political level, with members who voted on the recommendations (Nalcor and the provincial government were non-voting members). While agreed to in principle in October 2016, its work began in earnest following Reimer’s appointment as chair in August 2017.

Of the IEAC’s four recommendations, there was consensus approval on three. There was a desire for an independent body for review of monitoring; a public information campaign to make it clear consumption of water and country foods is still safe; and negotiation of an “impact security fund” to support response that would be needed, if consumption advisories are ever required.

Reimer says another recommendation — the fourth, disputed, recommendation — has pulled focus from the rest. It has certainly overshadowed it in public commentary.

The independent group of scientists and Indigenous knowledge experts recommended “targeted removal of soil and capping of wetlands in the future reservoir before impoundment.”

While the majority of the oversight committee agreed on that, the Innu Nation did not agree with moving soil, expressing its reservations in writing. Subsequently, public attention turned to the $400 million to $750 million estimated for the soil removal.

The provincial government said it would review all of the IEAC’s recommendations, but gave no public notice of further action.

“I fail, in my own, looking at the situation, to understand what is prohibiting them from responding to these particular recommendations, because I think now it’s going to call into question — and people are already asking these questions — were they serious about the (IEAC) process?” NunatuKavut Community Council president Todd Russell said while testifying at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Feb. 27.

As noted during the inquiry hearings, there was no commitment to automatically accept and act on all the IEAC’s recommendations, but everyone involved has so far expected some provincial government response, given the time and effort invested.

“I’d be extremely pissed off and disappointed if there’s no action taken on these IEAC recommendations,” former Nunatsiavut minister (now retired) Carl McLean testified at the ongoing public inquiry on Feb. 28.

Carl McLean.
Carl McLean.

McLean said he thought there was action taken on one, but wasn’t specific, and for the most part wasn’t certain. He also questioned who was pressing the long-term follow-up.

He said from the time of the IEAC’s final report to the point where he left the Nunatsiavut government (retiring in August), the government had written letters stressing the urgency of taking action.

The Telegram contacted the Nunatsiavut government, the Innu Nation and the NunatuKavut Community Council prior to publication of this story. In some cases, representatives said they had no one available to comment. In others, they had no interest in commenting at this time.

The Telegram will continue to track the methylmercury issue.

A statement from the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment said the province remains committed to addressing methylmercury concerns through a scientific, evidence-based approach, working with Indigenous partners.

There was no mention of the recommended independent body, but the department noted continuous methylmercury monitoring was agreed upon by all parties in October 2016.

Since then, there has been partial flooding of the reservoir and over 1,200 tests to date for methylmercury levels downstream.

“Current levels of methylmercury in Lake Melville are low and many samples were below the detection limit of 0.01(nanograms per litre),” the department stated, summarizing reports also available online.

Reimer says it’s a good message to get out there. A public advertising campaign, after all, was one of the committee’s recommendations.

“Current levels are really low. Great news. Let’s get that out there. I can’t emphasize how important that is,” he said, adding the more communication with the public about the benefits of country foods the better.

He suggested there could also be more discussion related to the fourth recommendation, for the physical mitigation work at the reservoir, given the Innu Nation’s reservations were focused on the soil removal. On the other hand, wetland capping would be expected to reduce the carbon released, and methylmercury ultimately sent downstream.

“Why that (wetland capping) didn’t get discussed further sort of surprises me,” he said.

Reimer was appointed to lead the IEAC with 40 years of experience behind him as a professor, scientific adviser and expert with experience in environmental review. But he’s heard criticisms since of the IEAC and its work, and has also read it in one of the more recent consultant reports.

“Current levels are really low. Great news. Let’s get that out there. I can’t emphasize how important that is." — Reimer

“We had a lot of people work very hard and very seriously to be as unbiased as we could, and look at all of the information,” he said, adding he had no personal bias and is proud of what was accomplished and documented.

“We had a lot of expertise,” he said, offering his own notes on the subsequent consultant’s comments.

A report from the Azimuth Consulting Group in July 2018, now in evidence at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry, states “there is an extremely low likelihood of risk to human health from consumption of seafood from Goose Bay or Lake Melville at peak mercury levels in a post-impoundment scenario.”

Ultimately, everyone agrees there will be an increase in methylmercury levels downstream, but the disagreement remains to exactly what extent.

The public discussion at this point is still a step beyond where it was at the start of the hydro project.

“I really do think the need for an independent body ongoing is important,” Reimer said, when asked about criticisms.

“It’s not too late.”

Twitter: @TeleFitz


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