The RCMP arrested nine people as they attempted to blockade the site of a giant $11 billion hydroelectric dam in Labrador Monday morning.
Protests have escalated against the controversial Muskrat Falls project, which is slated to generate a wealth of renewable energy for the Atlantic provinces — but locals fear it will poison their food supply downstream. An Inuk artist is staging a hunger strike in opposition, and he joined dozens of protesters in blockading the site over the weekend. On Monday, a group of about 20 people defied a court-ordered injunction and blocked workers from entering the construction site before daybreak.
The protesters camped overnight near the site amid mounting fears that the company behind the project, Nalcor, could begin to flood a 41-square-kilometreswath of land any day now.
Peer-reviewed Harvard research suggests methylmercury levels will increase by 14 times downstream within 120 hours of flooding if the reservoir is not entirely cleared of trees and other organic material before flooding starts. Locals fear this will poison the fish, seals and other animals they rely on for food.
The company told VICE News last week it had cleared as much of the reservoir as possible—less than 75 percent of the trees—and has given notice that flooding will begin imminently, prompting the blockade. Twenty-five percent of the land will be flooded initially, with the rest to follow next year.
Monday's arrests came just hours before a group of about 25 protesters staged a sit-in at Newfoundland and Labrador premier Dwight Ball's office. The office shut down for the day shortly after the sit-in began.
"Just because they're making arrests doesn't mean we're going to stop," 21-year-old Carly Thomson, who was at the office, told VICE News. The Metis woman has written multiple letters to the premier and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calling for them to stop the flooding. She says the health, safety and culture of her community are at stake if flooding is allowed to go forward.
Seven people were arrested at the entrance of the construction site around 5 AM, Inuit protester Andrea Andersen, 25, told VICE News. An eighth protester, a woman from Rigolet, was arrested on the designated protest site across the street from the construction site, she said. Harvard researchers pinpointed Rigolet, a small community of 300 people, as most at risk for methylmercury effects downstream. One more protester was arrested later in the morning, according to the RCMP.
"The police officer arrested someone on the peaceful protest site who was making some verbal remarks about poisoning and methylmercury, and so one of the arrests we feel was very unlawful," Andersen said of the ninth arrest. She said the officer arrested the woman because she stepped onto the highway, but others were also on the road.
The RCMP confirmed the nine arrests to VICE News, and said they each face one count of disobeying a court order. They were expected to appear in court Monday afternoon.
President of the NunatuKavut Community Council Todd Russell called the arrests "heavy handed," according to CBC, and said the council stands in solidarity with the protesters. The elected council represents about 6,000 Inuit in south and central Labrador.
"While we believe there is still time to start making the right decision and build back trust with Indigenous people, we feel we have no other option but to commit our people, time and resources to on-the-ground action until our voices are heard and our rights respected," Russell said in a statement.
Buses and cars of Nalcor employees drove past the protesters as the arrests unfolded, according to Andersen. She said in recent days, employees have yelled from their vehicles that the protesters are wasting their time and preventing them from working, while others have crossed the road to visit the encampment, bringing Tim Hortons and throwing logs on the fire to show their support.
The dam project has already provided thousands of jobs in the area, Nalcor says, and when complete, together with the Gull Island phase of the project, it will generate a whopping 16.7 terawatt hours of electricity for Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and eventually, the company hopes, New England." That's the equivalent of taking 3.2 million cars off the road, the company says.
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Correction: Previously this article stated that Muskrat Falls would generate 16.7 terawatt hours of electricity. It has been changed to reflect that this amount of electricity will be generated from Muskrat Falls and a second phase of the project, Gull Island, combined.