Why Lake Melville’s Contamination Will Haunt Nalcor More Than Being Billions Over Budget on Muskrat

Rigolet residents have said they’re accustomed to eating as much as 95% of their food from the land. And we’ve just contaminated their centuries-old source of food.

For well over a year, environmental critics, scientific reports (including one out of Harvard), and the Nunatsiavut Government cried out against the provincial government for sanctioning the certain contamination of Lake Melville – a food source central to Inuit subsistence for centuries. We ignored them and polluted the place anyway.

This wasn’t a simple case of pitting making money over “doing the right thing,” because we had the option to both make money and do the right thing. The Harvard report clearly said we could avoid the contentious spikes in methyl mercury by clearing the flood zone of vegetation and debris before flooding it.

Flooding the area before clearing away the vegetation and debris will turn mercury (naturally present in the area) into a highly toxic compound called methyl mercury. This happens because bacteria in the water system convert mercury into methyl mercury, and the natural process is dramatically enhanced during reservoir flooding, because more carbon content in the reservoir (from un-cleared vegetation) = more methyl mercury in the water.

Instead of listening to the esteemed folks at Harvard, we opted to contaminate now and deal with it later. The fallout of that will last for decades.

Muskrat Falls Could Redeem Itself in The End, but This Moment in History Cannot

Most of 2016’s biggest news stories have centred on Nalcor and Muskrat Falls – the scandals, the secrets, the perceived failures and the cost over-runs. Some of it real, a lot of it amped up and exaggerated by sensational media reporting.

But while Muskrat Falls being billions over budget is a big deal, a person could choose to argue Muskrat Falls, once up and running, will be a good thing. It is, after all, super-clean energy in bulk, that will be coming into play just as Canada’s new Carbon Pricing Plans comes into effect. We stand to make a lot of money off Muskrat Falls. We only need 40% of the power we’ll generate, and the price tag on exporting the excess into Atlantic Canadian and New England markets will put $60 billion in our bank over the next half-century.

And unless we’re being lied to, and DarkNL was a conspiracy sham, our province’s ability to produce ample power is legitimately failing. It was for this very reason we started work on Muskrat Falls: we need a new, reliable, robust source of energy because the dirty old Holyrood Coal station is dirty, old, and falling apart. It’s costing money in upkeep. Replacing it with an energy powerhouse like Muskrat Falls was, in theory, a good idea. Or at least a well-intentioned one.

You can read those stats, facts, and intentions and make your own choice as to whether Muskrat Falls was a good idea for the province. But it is a lot harder to read the rest of this article and, in good conscious, feel we were right to ignore the Harvard scientists, and not clear that reservoir of vegetation and debris before flooding it. In the grand scheme of Muskrat’s budget, the cost of doing so would’ve been chump change.

Here’s Why Methyl Mercury Is So Bad

Mercury is a particularly nasty pollutant. It is toxic even in low levels, and it can “bioaccumulate,” which means it can build up in your system over time, if you’re eating from a contaminated source.

In a process called biomagnification, small organisms – like fish in that Lake – will absorb mercury, and will be eaten by bigger ones (say, a duck), which are in turn eaten by us. At each rung on the food chain, we’re passing more and more mercury up to the next rung.

Methyl mercury can cross both the blood-brain and placental barriers, allowing it to react directly with your brain and with your unborn baby. It is linked to neurological disorders disrupting your ability to think and speak and remember clearly, and it can cause heart, immune, and kidney disease, and birth defects.

Is This Environmental Racism?

The big question here is, Would we have knowingly contaminated a lake people in St. John’s or Torbay rely on for sustenance? Rigolet residents have said they’re accustomed to eating as much as 95% of their food from the land. And we’ve just contaminated their centuries-old source of food.

In due time, we might forgive those at fault for the unexpected costs and delays of building Muskrat Falls. After all, there was a time critics called Hibernia a “boondoggle” for the god-awful amount of money it took to get it up and going, but it turned out to be an economic saviour; a geyser spewing wealth upon us for decades strong.

But at no point in history can a province – with the kindness we’re supposed to be known for – forgive a government that knowingly poisoned a food source precious to Labrador’s Inuit community.

Lake Melville has been central to Inuit subsistence and well-being for centuries. Contaminating it, unnecessarily, was nothing short of history repeating itself in how callously we treat our indigenous populations in Canada. Shameful history repeating itself is the epitome of true ignorance and indecent elitism.

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2 Comments

  • “For well over a year, environmental critics, scientific reports (including one out of Harvard), and the Nunatsiavut Government cried out against the provincial government for sanctioning the certain contamination of Lake Melville – a food source central to Inuit subsistence for centuries. We ignored them and polluted the place anyway.”

    The methylmercury concerns were present for much longer then a year, every hydro dam ever build has resulted in elevated methylmercury levels in downstream bodies of water – for the Nunatsiavut Gov to say they don’t want the project halted completely but also want the methylmercury levels reduced is a joke – its inevitable. They may be able to lower the projected increases by removing vegetation, but methylmercury levels WILL rise – there is no stopping it. They can’t have it both ways. The science was there before the project was even started, everyone just ignored it because they were more worried about the economic return than the environmental concerns. Right now they’re just taking an over budget, behind schedule project, and making it more over budget, and more behind schedule, for what appears to be a good reason, but in reality is not. So now, not only will the government have to pay to “clear” the land, it will also have to pay compensation down the road for the inevitable poisoning of its people. The sanctioning for contaminating Lake Melville happened the day Muskrat Falls was sanctioned – and where were the protesters then?

    There’s the harsh reality.

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