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Muskrat Falls Inquiry: No firm response on reservoir clearing

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.
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. - Contributed

Nalcor says it’s in hands of government, as Nunatsiavut says time running short

At the Muskrat Falls Inquiry Thursday afternoon, representatives of the Nunatsiavut Government were asked where things stand in terms of flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir and any additional site work to respond to concerns about methylmercury.

They said they don’t know the plan.

Nunatsiavut’s director of environment, Rodd Laing, and former minister of Lands and Natural Resources Carl McLean said the Indigenous government still has concerns the hydro project will cause a spike in methylmercury in the Churchill River and Lake Melville, in the local food system. The fear is it will lead to required consumption advisories on traditional foods, and risk damage to human health.

Nalcor Energy is monitoring methylmercury levels, has plans for consumption advisories and a commitment from the provincial government on compensation, if it comes to that.

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But something else was proposed, under an Independent Expert Advisory Committee on methylmercury (IEAC). The IEAC was formed after a leaders’ meeting, including representatives from all Labrador Indigenous groups, in the fall of 2016. The IEAC investigated the methylmercury question, given new scientific information since the dam project’s environmental assessment specific to the potential effects downstream. Among the IEAC’s final recommendations in April 2017 was a call for a targeted removal of soil and capping of wetlands in the Muskrat Falls reservoir area.

That recommendation was not accepted by the Innu Nation, which cited its own environmental concerns and uncertainties in the process.

The provincial government said it needed more time to review the recommendations and responses.

Neither Laing, nor McLean, could say with certainty if the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador was going to order any additional clearing of what will become the Muskrat Falls reservoir.

Former Environment Minister Eddie Joyce indicated, when the IEAC recommendations were released, it would be difficult to take further action without consensus, and given the points made by the Innu Nation.

“The answer we’ve been getting in emails and conversations was, ‘We’re still reviewing it,’” McLean said on the stand Thursday.

If any additional clearing work were to be ordered, the suggestion was it be done when the ground was frozen, to minimize disturbance in the environment.

“But this is late fall now, or we’re getting there,” said Muskrat Falls Inquiry co-counsel Barry Learmonth.

“Yes,” Laing replied.

McLean confirmed Nalcor Energy has remained steadfast it will do whatever it is required to do by the regulators, being the provincial and federal governments.

“(But) from our perspective compensation isn’t mitigation,” Laing said. “You mitigate something to avoid those impacts, to reduce the need for that. I think that’s critically important and related to this (reservoir decision).”

During his initial appearance at the inquiry, current Nalcor Energy president and CEO Stan Marshall said the project is still on track to provide first power from the dam in the last quarter of 2019, with full power in the third quarter of 2020.

A spokeswoman for Nalcor Energy said any questions about the IEAC’s recommendations should be directed to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment.

The question of whether or not there would be further work at the reservoir had already been put to the department, but no response from the province was received by a print deadline of 5 p.m.

A statement received Friday afternoon from the department says no decision has been made on further clearing. The statement also noted the recommendation for additional clearing and wetland capping at the reservoir "was not agreed upon by the voting IEAC members." As reported, the Innu Nation were not in favour of the approach.

NOTE: Updated Friday afternoon, to include response from Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

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