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St. John’s chapter calls on Trudeau to halt Muskrat Falls dam construction

Muskrat Falls before construction on the hydro-electric dams began.

The Council of Canadians St. John’s chapter is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to protect the health, culture and human rights of the people of Labrador by putting a halt to the Muskrat Falls project until key demands can be met.

The Muskrat Falls hydro-electric dam project would see two large dams – a 32-metre high north dam and a 29-metre south dam – on the lower Churchill River in Labrador. Power from Muskrat Falls would be brought to Newfoundland and then to Nova Scotia through a sub-sea link. The dams are being built on Innu territory, but the Inuit also claim part of the lands that would be affected by the project as their traditional territory. When the project was announced in 2010 it was forecast to cost $5-billion. By June of this year the cost had rocketed to $11.4 billion. The federal government provided a loan guarantee of $6.4 billion to enable the project to proceed. In 2012, the federal government also removed federal oversight of the Churchill River in their Navigation Protection Act. Construction began in 2013 and $6.7 billion has already been spent or contractually committed to the project. The first power from the dam is expected to be generated by fall 2019, while power via the sub-sea link is expected in mid-2020.

The chapter has signed a joint letter that says, “[The prime minister and premier] must ensure that the flooding of the reservoir at Muskrat Falls does not go ahead without full clearing of the reservoir.” A clearing of the trees and vegetation in the area that would be flooded would reduce the levels of mercury contamination, but the provincial minister of environment Perry Trimper says this is virtually impossible to do. The chapter highlights, “A Harvard study shows that reservoir flooding will significantly increase methylmercury levels in Lake Melville and Inuit exposures to methylmercury for generations. The World Health Organization states that methylmercury can have toxic effects on the nervous, digestive and immune systems, and on lungs, kidneys, skin and eyes.”

Charlotte Wolfrey, a resident of Rigolet, an Inuit community on Lake Melville, says, “Our concern is about methylmercury getting into our food supply and down the road not being able to live our traditional lifestyle. It’s impacting our Inuit way of life.” And Innu elder Tshaukuesh (Elizabeth) Penashue says her peoples access to the land is fundamental to the preservation of their culture.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) supports what both Wolfrey and Penashue are saying. UNDRIP says that Indigenous peoples have the “right to the conservation and protection of the environment and the productive capacity of their lands or territories” and “the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands”. In May of this year, the federal ministers of Indigenous and Northern Affairs and Justice confirmed at the United Nations in New York that Canada will “fully adopt and work to implement” UNDRIP.

There are also concerns about the potential collapse of the North Spur. CBC has explained, “The North Spur is a jut of rock and deep soil in the Churchill River on the north side of Muskrat Falls. The upstream side of the spur will take the full weight of the reservoir that will be created by the hydroelectric complex.” If the North Spur were to collapse, an analysis done by the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay found that 250 properties and 15 kilometres of road would be affected totalling at least $60 million in damage. The flood zone would also include the town’s water system and its wastewater treatment plant. The United Nations recognition of the human rights to water and sanitation includes the Obligation to Respect, whereby governments must refrain from any action or policy that interferes with the rights to water and sanitation.

And a recently released scientific study from Washington State University found that the reservoirs from dams around the world are emitting almost a billion tonnes of annual carbon dioxide equivalents (79 per cent of which is methane). The international team of researchers concluded, “with the current boom in global dam construction, reservoirs will represent an even larger fraction of anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in the coming years.”

The chapter and its allies are calling on the federal and provincial government to:

  • only proceed with the flooding once Indigenous peoples have their given free, prior and informed consent

  • meet all the conditions of the Make Muskrat Right campaign (fully clear the Muskrat Falls reservoir area, negotiate an impact agreement with the Nunatsiavut Government, establish an independent expert advisory committee to advise on mitigation measures, grant Inuit joint decision-making authority over downstream environmental monitoring and management)

  • convene a panel of experts to ensure the North Spur does not collapse.

The first phase of flooding of traditional Innu territory for the Muskrat Falls project is scheduled to begin on October 15, which is the weekend of the Council of Canadians “Groundswell 2016: Toward a Healthy Economy for People and the Planet” conference in St. John’s.

#MakeMuskratRight #StopMuskratFalls #EveryLakeEveryRiver