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.

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