Province orders Nalcor Energy to compensate for methylmercury downstream of Muskrat Falls

Plan for hydroelectric project approved, with increased monitoring

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on June 14, 2016

The provincial and federal governments have signed off on Nalcor Energy’s plans for monitoring methylmercury effects downstream of the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam.

The approval of a human health risk assessment plan from the corporation means the hydroelectric development can now continue as always stated by the Crown corporation, with caveats.

For one, Nalcor Energy must increase monitoring for downstream effects, covering a greater area that captures the previously omitted Lake Melville, as now recommended by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

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Nalcor will be required to watch for rising levels of the neurotoxin methylmercury, providing compensation as consumption advisories are needed.

The type and amount of compensation is to be decided in consultation with aboriginal governments and area “stakeholders,” according to text of the government approval. The compensation demand will be enforced by the Environment department, said minister Perry Trimper, who made the announcement this morning at Confederation Building in St. John’s.

The minister ultimately rejected further actions upstream, specifically greater clearing of organic material from the reservoir area, saying it would make little difference in some cases, while potentially creating greater problems in others.

Should more surface materials like trees and brush be cleared, for example, he said it would add safety risks while also — here citing a March roundtable with scientific experts —  not substantially reducing methylmercury release.

In the case of clearing everything, including 25 centimetres of topsoil, it was found clearing even half of the Muskrat Falls reservoir area in this way would produce about five million cubic metres of soil that would then have to be dealt with (with concerns over its location and muddy runoff) while also creating a sterile environment for fish in the river, making the new reservoir/lake largely uninhabitable.

The reservoir to be created is expected to cover about 41 square kilometres at surface.

The announcement today comes with consideration of a study led by researchers with Harvard University, supported by CCORE, the University of Manitoba and Memorial University of Newfoundland. The results of that four-year study, released to the public in April, looked at complaints from the Nunatsiavut Inuit government over the lack of consideration for downstream effects from heightened methylmercury levels due to the Muskrat Falls project.

It found Lake Melville, downstream, at the base of the lower Churchill River, is likely to see increased methylmercury levels in the food chain — to the point where as many as 200 Inuit people will be exposed to methylmercury beyond Health Canada guidelines, following their current diet.

The study does not cover the expectations for an estimated 7,200 other people in the area, some part of other aboriginal groups.

At this point, Nalcor Energy has been ordered to monitor for changes, issuing consumption advisories and negotiating compensation as required.

“Country foods are very important for people in this area. Putting a price on that is very difficult to do, so I’m not going to speculate as to what that amount would be,” Trimper told reporters. “But I would draw a reference to a recent compensation offer that occurred as a result of the project regarding the Strait of Belle Isle and compensation to fisheries.”

There, scallop fishermen in the Strait were provided compensation without dispute from Nalcor Energy, for the loss of fishing area due to the laying of underwater power cables. It ended up in the courts, as the level payout of compensation to individuals from the fishermens’ union (accepting a lump sum on behalf of the fishermen) became disputed.

In immediate responses to the announcement today, the Progressive Conservative critic Barry Petten supported the province’s approach on the methylmercury issue, although unsure on the compensation details, while NDP leader Earle McCurdy said it feels as if this was one issue not properly thought through prior to the sanctioning of the power project.