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A Canadian Energy Company Is About to Expose an Inuit Community to Toxic Mercury

Children could be born with lower IQs for generations, scientists say.
April 20, 2016, 11:00am
Muskrat Falls dam in June of 2015. Image: Nalcor Energy

It's a tale as old as time: energy company proposes big project, energy company says it will have no effects on the local population, local population says it'll actually poison their land, and their people, for decades.

Classic! The energy company in question here is Nalcor Energy, and the project is the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam in Labrador, Newfoundland, which got the green light from the provincial government in 2012. Flooding the reservoir to build the dam will release toxic methylmercury into the area around nearby Lake Melville, but Nalcor argues that it will be diluted enough to have no effect on the local Inuit population.


But a new study, commissioned by the aboriginal Nunatsiavut Government and completed by scientists from Memorial University, Harvard, and the University of Manitoba, says that the toxic mercury released during the dam's construction will have highly detrimental effects on the area's wildlife and the aboriginal people who live off of it.

More than 200 individuals (and their children and grandchildren) could be affected by the toxic mercury, the study's authors concluded. Additionally, 66 percent of the community in nearby Rigolet will be pushed above acceptable mercury levels, per the most conservative US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, according to the report.

"It's basically a direct impact on their brain development"

Nalcor's more positive assessment of the dam's effects was "false and based on incorrect assumptions," a summary of the study for policymakers states.

"The findings from epidemiological studies show that [mercury] is associated with lifelong neurocognitive deficits," Harvard epidemiologist and study co-author Elsie Sunderland told me. "This isn't something that you would see visibly. It's basically a direct impact on their brain development, so they wouldn't realize the potential they would have without this kind of exposure." One of the main indicators of this kind of mercury exposure is children with lowered IQs, Sunderland said.

Gilbert Bennett, vice-president of the Nalcor project that oversees the Muskrat Falls dam, said in a prepared statement sent to Motherboard that "we do not predict that creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir will heighten risk to people in Lake Melville."


"We will carefully review the assumptions, approaches, parameters and outcomes of the study by Nunatsiavut Government, and any implications of the report on the project's ongoing environmental effects monitoring programs," the statement reads. A spokesperson for Newfoundland and Labrador's minister of environment and conservation Perry Trimper said the minister has yet to make a decision on the environmental impacts of the Muskrat Falls project, and will take the recent study's findings into consideration.

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According to Sunderland, contamination of the region would take just 120 hours, and the effects would persist for decades. "We are looking at multiple generations of exposure to higher levels of methylmercury," Sunderland said.

So, how did Nalcor not catch this, if these findings are right? According to Sunderland, Nalcor simply did not take the needed measurements, and instead just assumed that the mercury would be diluted. If Nalcor had done the work, they would have seen that this is flatly untrue, she contended.

"I don't see this as a difference in opinion, or a difference in findings," said Sunderland. "That's a misrepresentation, because they didn't have any findings. They didn't study the physical characteristics of the estuary."

Nalcor declined to comment directly on this allegation.

To offset the impacts of releasing methylmercury into the environment, the researchers suggest completely clearing the area of trees, vegetation, and topsoil. Even then, however, the report suggests around 30 Inuit people will be negatively affected by the high levels of mercury.

"Removal of soil from the reservoir was not considered during the environmental assessment and therefore is not part of our construction plans," Bennett said in his statement.

The flooding of the reservoir to build the Muskrat Falls dam is scheduled to take place later this year, and the dam is set to be constructed by 2017.