Photo by Justin Brake via Twitter
Inuit hunters downstream from a massive $11 billion "clean" energy project in Labrador fear it will poison their food supply with methylmercury when flooding begins later this month.
When it's complete, the Muskrat Falls dam project in Canada's north will provide a wealth of reliable, non-fossil fuel electricity to Canada's east coast and eventually, the province hopes, New England. The company behind the project says it will produce, together with the Gull Island phase of the project, a whopping 16.7 terawatt hours of electricity a year, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of taking 3.2 million cars off the road.
But while new, non-fossil fuel energy sources are becoming increasingly vital as the world confronts climate change, peer-reviewed Harvard research suggests the dam flooding will increase methylmercury levels downstream by 14 times within 120 hours, putting the local Inuit at risk of poisoning from the neurotoxin. Climate change has also increased the worry of methylmercury in Canada's north because the melting permafrost is expected to deposit more of the dangerous toxin, which can cause poor brain development and impaired learning.
On Monday afternoon, a small group of locals and Indigenous elders marched toward a part of the dam, the North Spur, as two RCMP vehicles followed close behind.
"I suspect that we will be in jail in a couple hours," one of the protesters Kirk Lethbridge told VICE News.
The protesters worry the North Spur wall of the dam could fail because it has a clay base — though the company behind the dam told VICE News its engineers are working to stabilize the area.
Though the project near Happy Valley-Goose Bay was first approved by the Newfoundland government in 2012, the stakes have risen in the last few days. That's because a key permit for the project came into effect on October 1, allowing the company behind it, Nalcor, to flood a giant swath of land. The initial flooding will cover 25 percent of that land, with the rest to follow in 2017.
But according to the Harvard research, if that land isn't cleared of trees and other vegetation before flooding begins, the submerged vegetation will release methylmercury into the water, increasing levels of the neurotoxin downstream. Already there are elevated levels of naturally-occurring methylmercury in the area, and eventually, locals fear, the methylmercury will accumulate in the fish and seals, known as "country food." Hunting is the main source of food in remote northern communities where groceries are prohibitively expensive because they have to be flown in.
Lead Harvard researcher Elsie Sunderland has said the company can mitigate the surge of methylmercury by removing trees and dead vegetation. But her research has also shown the methylmercury may increase even if the company removes this.
The company originally committed to clearing 75 percent of the trees in the area, but they haven't been able to clear all of that because it's impossible to remove trees on steep slopes and near water. There are no plans to completely clear the reservoir of trees before flooding begins in late October, Nalcor and the province's environment minister told VICE News.
That's why the situation is becoming increasingly desperate for locals downstream. The Harvard researchers have pointed to Rigolet, a small community of 300, as one area that is most in danger.
"Once they start flooding, that's it for us," Rigolet hunter Charlie Flowers said.
In Rigolet, everyone fishes and hunts, Flowers explains to VICE News. If methylmercury accumulates in the "country food," it will mean a dramatic change to how he and other Inuit people live.
Methylmercury is more dangerous than inorganic mercury because it is absorbed into the body six times more easily. Mercury poisoning can affect fetal growth, leading to poor brain development and impaired learning.
"It's very scary, very worrisome. We don't know what to do, but we're trying to get people educated.
"If it continues, we'll have no choice but to shut it down somehow," he said.
Facing what they believe to be a threat to their way of life, locals and the Inuit regional government, the Nunatsiavut Government, have started a #MakeMuskratRight social media campaign, and have held protests both at the dam site and at the office of the province's environment minister Perry Trimper.
In an interview on Friday, Trimper told VICE News he has met with the Nunatsiavut government, and that the province and Nalcor have mitigated the potential methylmercury effects by clearing as many trees and vegetation from the land as possible before flooding.
"They've done what government has asked them to do to date," Trimper said, adding that Nalcor is still removing trees. Trimper has told the Nunatsiavut government he is still open to additional removal of vegetation in the coming years, but not before initial flooding begins.
"The big questions, Hilary, are: how much [and] when will methylmercury form as a result of the flooding. This is a natural process that goes on, it's just that with the hydroelectric project, it tends to be concentrated. And despite the fact that this is flooding 41 square kilometres, it's still will flood 41 square kilometres, so there is debate over just how extensive that will be. So that's the question we want to get to."
When asked about locals' concerns of methylmercury accumulation in the food chain, Trimper said he has lived in the area for 30 years, and he understands their concerns.
"I've been in this job about 10 months and I can tell you it's been occupying a lot of my time. I think that's a good thing. That's what I'm assuring everybody who I represent: that I'm making sure that good science is being done and that their health is being protected."
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