The government of Newfoundland and Labrador and three Indigenous groups reached a late-night deal Wednesday, after a 13 hours of negotiation, that could potentially stop contamination downstream from a major hydroelectric project in Canada's north.
The province reached the deal with the Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut Government and the Nunatukavut Community Council, which together represent the interests of thousands of Indigenous people in the region.
But the agreement has protesters who had opposed the project split over whether it's a win or a loss, with some feeling their concerns were not addressed. Some people were also confused over what exactly the province had agreed to, and whether controversial flooding that was at the heart of their complaint would go ahead, due in part to a convoluted provincial press release published at 2 AM Wednesday morning.
"We got all of our demands met that we were asking for," Billy Gauthier, one of three protesters who staged hunger strikes over the impending flooding, told VICE News.
Under the deal, the province has handed over previously-unreleased engineering reports to the Indigenous groups for independent expert review in the coming days. If the review finds the engineering reports are sound, the company will begin flooding 25 percent of the hydroelectric dam's reservoir as planned.
If the independent review finds flaws in the engineering reports, flooding will not go ahead at all, explained Memorial University research professor Dr. Trevor Bell.
That's important because for the last month, the company behind the project has been been in a position to go ahead with the flooding without any public scientific review. Protesters had camped out across from the Muskrat Falls work site for almost a month in an attempt to stop the project from going ahead, first blockading the entrance to the site and later breaking into the site to occupy it. Despite two court injunctions, the protesters refused to budge due to fears that the dam could increase levels of methylmercury downstream.
Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that accumulates in fish and other animals as it travels up the food chain, stoking worries that it could poison the fish and seals locals rely on for food.
The province and the company behind the project, Nalcor, have been under pressure to complete the $11-billion project, which has been plagued with cost overruns. The project was initially funded thanks to significant loan guarantees from the federal government, as well as Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. With those guarantees running out next year, Ottawa has yet to announce whether it will extend the financial aid.
Once completed, the Muskrat Falls project, along with a sister station nearby, will provide huge amounts of renewable energy to the Atlantic provinces and New England.
Bell, who was a co-author of a report on the dam's downstream methylmercury effects and who sat in on the negotiations, explained the government had made a clear commitment to remove trees, vegetation and/or soil if independent experts say they need to be removed in order to reduce methylmercury levels.
But while some protesters joined the hunger strikers in celebration, others were disappointed, saying the deal doesn't address their concerns with the structural integrity of the North Spur, a wall of the dam that some are worried could buckle, causing flooding downstream.
"The biggest worry that I have is the stability of the North Spur, and that wasn't even addressed at the meeting last night," said protester Craig Chaulk as he returned home from the protest site. "That is the achilles heal of the whole project."
"People are happy they're eating," protester Christina Isabel Tellezsaid of the hunger strikers. "But this is clearly not over for a lot of people."
Protesters began dismantling their camp Wednesday afternoon across from the Muskrat Falls worksite, but they warned protest actions would continue.
The province has also promised to convene an independent advisory committee, that will include Indigenous leaders, to recommend methylmercury mitigation options.
Pending the outcome of the scientific review, Bell said the mitigation efforts could set "a new standard for dealing with methylmercury production" on other hydroelectric dams.
Bell said he believed it was "a win for Labradorians and grassroots democracy," and that Muskrat Falls can teach industry a lesson going forward.
"It's fair to say this project did not have a strong community acceptability or confidence," he said. "And there's a lesson there to be learned by other projects that ensuring that there is community confidence and acceptability is really important to building a strong relationship, especially when you're dealing with Aboriginal cultures."
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