Clear Muskrat Falls reservoir, protect people: Nunatsiavut leaders
Methylmercury issue coming to a head, with new science and fresh warnings
Results are in from an independent, four-year study of methylmercury levels in the Lake Melville ecosystem, with an expectation of health risks for people downstream of the hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls.
Anyone relying on fish, seal and birds from the area for food will have to consider the potential they are adding harmful levels of methylmercury to their system.
Exposure to the neurotoxin has been associated with brain impairment in children, cardiovascular and hormonal illness in adults.
The new Lake Melville Scientific Report, as it was being referred to last Monday, sums up a collection of data sets and studies, extending into human health-effects modeling. The work was led by a team from Harvard University and contributions from C-CORE, Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Manitoba.
It concludes over 200 people - namely Inuit people of Nunatsiavut - could exceed Health Canada guidelines for methylmercury exposure, under Nalcor Energy’s current plans for “partial clearing” of organic material from the Muskrat Falls reservoir. That is under a high-risk scenario, including little breakdown of the methylmercury before it enters the food web. The figure might be brought down to a model showing just over 30 affected, given a more complete clearing of organic material from what will become the reservoir area for the hydro site.
Calling a news conference in St. John’s last Monday, based on the findings, the Nunatsiavut Government called for “full clearing” of the reservoir, including removal of topsoil, to minimize the expected spike in methylmercury.
The aboriginal government also asked for negotiations with Nalcor for an agreement tied to potential health impacts (no specific items for the agreement were raised).
The government also wants an independent committee to be created by the province, with scientific experts included for oversight of follow-up monitoring on the project.
“Much of the debate around this project has been on the economics ... but for us it’s much more important than that,” said Nunatsiavut president Sarah Leo.
Beside her, Nunatsiavut Lands and Natural Resources minister Darryl Shiwak choked up, as he addressed reporters.
“I am a father of three children and Rigolet is our home,” he said, repeating the same in a government statement.
“If the Muskrat Falls project continues on the current path, we are going to see a significant increase in methylmercury exposure to our families. That is not acceptable, especially when something can be done about it.”
In an interview with TC Media later in the day, Nalcor Energy vice-president Gilbert Bennett said the subject of methylmercury is not being dismissed.
However, while taking the new science into account, he said project plans are not changing at this point.
Data collected by the independent research team is in line with what Crown corporation consultants have provided, he said, with the difference being the latter have not predicted heightened risk to people in the Lake Melville area.
Bennett said there are assumptions made in all modelling, around country food consumption levels for example. He noted Nalcor’s plans to monitor methylmercury levels and issue consumption warnings if needed.
He also said the difference to methylmercury between proposed “partial clearing” and “full clearing” is minimal, noting “full clearing” as it was proposed by Nalcor Energy and reviewed in environmental assessment did not include removal of topsoil.
That level of clearing would fall outside of any industry standards, he said.
He expects to see a diversion of the river this summer, as con- struction progresses, with flooding of the reservoir area in late 2017.
A joint federal-provincial environmental review panel issued a report on the Lower Churchill project in August 2011. “The Panel concludes that, if consumption advisories are required in Goose Bay and Lake Melville as a result of elevated methylmercury in fish or seal from the project, this would constitute a significant adverse effect on the residents of the Upper Lake Melville communities and Rigolet,” the final report stated.
Meanwhile, the Nunatsiavut Government has said it will consider any action, including legal action, to bring about reservoir clearing as requested.
Catch from Lake Melville. Citing a new study of the potential for methylmercury to rise in the local food chain as a result of the creation of the reservoir for the Muskrat Falls hydro dam, bio-accumulating up through to key country foods like large fish, the Nunatsiavut Government wants Nalcor Energy to reconsider its approach to the project.