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Hydroelectric Projects Pose Risk to Indigenous People, Harvard Study Warns

The study looked at 22 proposed projects in Canada, all of them near Indigenous communities.


A hydroelectric power station in Quebec. Photo via Flickr user Axel Drainville

Environmental scientists have known since the 1970s that there's a serious link between building dams and higher levels of toxic methylmercury in fish and mammals.

It's a pretty straightforward process.

Inorganic mercury is created by forest fires, volcanoes, mining gold, and burning coal, but benignly stored in soil and vegetation. That is, until the area is flooded with the damming of a river to create a reservoir, stimulating the now-underwater material to start decomposing and the chill mercury to be converted by bacteria into methylmercury, a dangerous neurotoxin that bioaccumulates in fish, birds and larger mammals, including humans. That latter happens most often with Indigenous people in remote and Northern communities, many of whom rely on fish and other wildlife as a key part of their diet. This can result in many generations of increased chances of heart problems, nervous system abnormalities, kidney damage, and ADHD in children.

"It's beyond doubt now that there's a causal relationship [between dams and methylmercury accumulation] because it's been observed so many times," said Ryan Calder, doctoral candidate at the Harvard School of Public Health and lead author of the paper published on November 9, "Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities."

Yet Crown corporations keep building the dams without working to mitigate such problems.

Calder's team identified 22 proposed hydro projects in Canada's not-so-distant future, including Labrador's Muskrat Falls, British Columbia's Site C, Manitoba's Keeyask, and Quebec's four-part La Romaine project.

Most have varying levels of methylmercury contamination risk. Only ten percent have no significant risk of poisoning, due to the dams being "run-of-the-river" and not requiring large reservoirs. Another is exempt from risk due to the very low carbon content in the soil.

A hydroelectric power plant in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Photo via Flickr user Leonora (Ellie) Enking

All 22 proposed projects are within 100 kilometres of Indigenous communities.

"When I did the pan-Canada analysis, I was surprised to see that in every case they're practically on top of Indigenous communities," Calder told VICE. "I don't think that's inevitable: I think there are ways to develop hydro resources that don't systematically contaminate the food used by Indigenous people."

Consider the example of Nalcor Energy's Muskrat Falls dam, located near the adorably named town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador.

The project has been in the works for years. As with many other proposed dams, it's proceeding due to a combo of sunk costs and anticipated export potential to the United States.

But there's a huge risk of methylmercury contamination of fish and marine mammals; the recent Harvard study pegs the potential increase at 10 times the levels in the river and 2.6-fold the levels in the estuary, which already features high levels due to freshwater discharges from the ocean. This will result in dangerously high concentrations of methylmercury for many species, for a very long time.

Nearby Inuit and Innu communities have staged massive opposition—including hunger strikes, blockades, and marches—in a push to clear the area of soil and vegetation prior to flooding, and independent monitoring with full Indigenous participation.

In response, Liberal MP Nick Whalen suggested that people who have relied on fishing for thousands of years should "eat less fish" to avoid methylmercury contamination, which he later apologized for. Since then, dozens of people have been named in court injunctions, including journalist Justin Brake and 96-year-old Dorothy Michelin.

Ossie Michelin—nephew of the latter and freelance journalist who's extensively covered the Muskrat Falls situation for APTN—said protesters have little trust in Nalcor given perceptions of the provincial Crown corporation acting "in bad faith" and failing to explain intentions to the public. A leak sprung in a temporary coffer on November 18, which Michelin explained has exacerbated concerns about the stability of the dam.

"It's hard to believe [Nalcor] at face value when they say stuff," he told VICE. "That's one of the reasons why there needs to be more independent review that is transparent and thoroughly communicated and explained to the public. People are afraid they're literally going to get washed away in the night."

Harvard's Calder also hasn't had much success with Nalcor: he explained that the company has worked to undermine the conclusions of his recently published study, hiring consultants to undermine uncertainties in the work. In October, the company suggested that it had commissioned Harvard researchers to assess methylmercury levels, which Harvard officials said was not true.

"I think the consulting industry is very happy that we've released this paper because people are getting a lot of work out of it," Calder said, noting it reflects the trend in other industries such as tobacco and oil and gas to obfuscate scientific evidence.

Nalcor turned down an interview request with VICE about the Harvard study, plans to remove organic material prior to flooding and calls for independent monitors. Instead, a spokesperson recommended speaking with the province's environment department, which is not directly responsible for the construction of Muskrat Falls.

But there are some obvious ways to resolve the methylmercury issue.

Pick sites with a lower carbon content in order to reduce decomposition, bolster the environmental assessment process, use tools to better forecast potential impacts, grant Indigenous people more power to reject projects if they don't feel mitigation efforts have been properly conducted. Calder emphasized that he's not "anti-hydro" and that projects can "proactively anticipate these impacts."

Unfortunately, methylmercury isn't the only major problem with hydro projects for Indigenous communities.

READ MORE: How Green Energy Has Hurt First Nations in the North

Peter Kulchyski—professor of native studies at the University of Manitoba and expert on hydro development in the province's North—told VICE that environmental assessments often fail to evaluate "intangible cultural heritage." Certain species such as squirrels and rabbits aren't deemed as necessary to be protected despite some local Indigenous people feeling a responsibility to "all of the beings on the land."

In addition, Kulchyski explained that hydro companies will rarely perform cumulative assessments, meaning combined effects won't be evaluated for all the dams, transmission lines, roads, dykes, transformer stations and gravel pits in an area. This results in many other byproducts of hydro development including unsafe ice for transportation, habitat destruction and the scaring off of animals for hunting and trapping.

"I think methylmercury is very important and certainly should be given some prominence," he said. "But also the destruction of habitat, the destruction of riparian wetlands, the fluctuation of water levels means there's continual and extensive erosion along shorelines and islands so you get the formation of 'apple core islands' and silk in the water which alone can make it unusable for human use."

A complicating factor is that most major hydro project proponents in Canada are provincial Crown corporations: BC Hydro, Nalcor, Manitoba Hydro, Yukon Energy, Hydro-Québec.

Calder said this "internalizes the political process," in contrast to the US where there would be a more adversarial relationship between a private corporation and government weighing the benefits and costs prior to making a decision.

Kulchyski echoed this, suggesting that environmental review processes often look to be "rigged in advance" given that environmental reviews are conducted by government agencies and may not be as independent as warranted.

There's little indication that this will change anytime soon; the federal Liberals have shown ambivalence on British Columbia's Site C, despite multiple challenges in question period to Minister of Justice Jody Wilson-Raybould over her flip-flopping on the project (in 2012, she suggested the project was "running roughshod over Aboriginal title rights").

The Liberals explicitly pointed to the potential of "renewable energy exports like hydro-electricity" in its 2015 platform.

But Indigenous protesters aren't giving up. Michelin pointed out that Muskrat Falls was able to do gain national attention despite being very "out of sight and mind for a lot of the Canadian public" due to an effective harnessing of social media, something with which industry and government are comparatively slow on the draw. He cited that as a "big gamechanger and strength."

But most of all—and he acknowledged that it might sound cheesy—the reason the three Indigenous groups in Labrador came together for the first time was out of a love for their communities and cultures and land; wanting to protect it, he said, was bigger and allowed them to unite in a fight against losing part of their way of life.

"At the end of the day, if we didn't love Labrador so much we wouldn't have had the strength to go through and do this and wouldn't have been able to support each other," he said.

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