The clock has run down on methylmercury mitigation work in the Muskrat Falls reservoir before full flooding, according to evidence at the ongoing public inquiry into the hydroelectric project.
The raising of the reservoir is scheduled for next month.
What’s less known is the back and forth behind the scenes, with no public debate of a possible action investigated and discussed by the government.
The idea was capping of wetland, meaning physically covering areas that might release more carbon and contribute to increased levels of methylmercury in the reservoir.
Important to the ongoing discussion is the fact there has been partial flooding of the reservoir to date, and ongoing methylmercury monitoring (with results available online) shows no risk to country foods downstream or to public health.
But there is still a public concern the upcoming full flooding could lead to consumption advisories, causing harm to Indigenous people and other area residents reliant on country foods.
Wetland capping, theoretically, would have been a small effort against reaching a methylmercury level where advisories are required.
It was a topic of discussion at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry Thursday, where a panel of bureaucrats spoke about communication of environmental concerns and the province’s response.
The panel included Martin Goebel, the province’s senior adviser on methylmercury; Susan Squires, who became the province’s director of environmental assessment in 2017; and Jamie Chippett, deputy minister of the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment.
They walked through the history on methylmercury and Muskrat Falls. It was noted, given the significant public concern around methylmercury, an Independent Expert Advisory Committee (IEAC) was struck. In April 2018, the committee issued its final report. One of the recommendations was to have Nalcor undertake “targeted soil removal and wetland capping” in the reservoir area.
The idea of soil removal was contested by the Innu Nation for multiple reasons. But there wasn’t the same objection for wetland capping.
The Liberal Government of Newfoundland and Labrador never publicly, explicitly stated its position — for or against — proposed mitigation measures.
Internally, there was interest in capping.
Staff within the Department of Environment, including Goebel, noticed time ticking by and were aware of the planned full flooding of the reservoir in 2019.
“We chose to try and advance the issue … by drafting a letter that could be sent from our minister (to Stan Marshall),” Chippett testified.
A letter was dated Nov. 6, 2018, but wasn’t sent. Within days, the department had another new minister, Graham Letto, who replaced Andrew Parsons (who had been juggling the Municipal Affairs and Environment portfolio atop Justice and Public Safety after Eddie Joyce was ousted from the Liberal caucus earlier in the year).
Letto was briefed. Chippett said there was then a meeting with Premier Dwight Ball. There were plans made to present information to cabinet. The cabinet meeting was deferred into the new year.
By then, it was already into the winter construction window, when frozen ground would have helped protect the environment, and migratory birds wouldn’t be a concern. And Nalcor Energy advised there was no time left.
SNC-Lavalin’s evaluations show that even if the government had got around to dealing with it at a December 2018 cabinet meeting, there was no time.
“In their report to the IEAC, SNC-Lavalin assumed that work would be undertaken (if approved) starting in the fall of 2018 and completed prior to April 2019. … That construction window is no longer available to us," wrote Nalcor Energy’s Gilbert Bennett.
On Jan. 16, 2019, he stated, "From a construction perspective, we need to maintain the impoundment schedule and impound as early as possible to complete the spillway concrete placement and to permit commissioning activities for Unit 1 in advance of first power this year."
There was some thought to capping the wetland after flooding, but a feasibility study requested from SNC-Lavalin recommends against the idea.
“The mitigating value of placing capping material some time after reservoir creation may be of reduced value (and) comes with safety risks,” SNC stated.