Muskrat Falls: the provincial government must act now to protect the lives and safety of downstream communities

It should be an easy decision.

Expert scientific studies have found that completion of Labrador’s Muskrat Falls dam as currently planned would release disastrously high levels of mercury into downstream waters, threatening the health, food security and cultural integrity of Inuit communities who rely in fish and seal.

However, these same studies have also concluded that the threat could be greatly reduced by removing soil from the planned reservoir to greatly reduce the amount of methyl mercury resulting from decomposition.

Now, the majority of members of an advisory committee struck by the government of Newfoundland and Labrador have made the same recommendation.

The province now has a choice. Either scrap the project or make the necessary changes. Either way, the lives and safety of downstream communities must ensured.

Inuit governments in Labrador long called for effective mediation measures to protect the traditional foods that are so crucial to the people of the downstream estuary.

In the advisory committee report, Nunatsiavut’s Deputy Minister of Natural Resources summed up the argument for removing the soil in this way:

“After reviewing the peer reviewed science as well as the scientific and Indigenous knowledge that was gathered prior to and during the IEAC process, we feel that the potential impacts and risks in not implementing additional mitigation measures prior to flooding are too high…. [W]e must do everything we can to protect the health of the Indigenous and local population through mitigation efforts to minimize impacts from methylmercury before the reservoir is inundated. Once inundated, no additional mitigation measures for methylmercury can take place.” 

However, there are other considerations and other voices and that could sway the province’s decision. The cost of removal of the soil has been estimated to add between $400 million and $750 million to the cost of the project, which is currently estimated to total almost $13 billion.

The Innu Nation, which was also represented on the advisory committee, has opposed the removal of soil, expressing concern about what would happen to it. The dam itself is located with Innu territory.

The provincial government has so far been noncommittal about the report, saying only that they need to weigh all the factors.

As Amnesty International has previously stated, the fate of Muskrat Falls is a critical human rights concern. Downstream communities have a right to the safe, healthy traditional foods that feeds their families and sustains their cultures. The Harvard study of the Muskrat Falls dam and its consequences for downstream communities found that the methylmercury created by decomposition of plants and soil in the reservoir would expose people eating fish and seals from the downstream waters to levels of mercury exceeding Canadian health guidelines. In some instances,  the exposure to mercury would increase by as much as 15 times.

Methylmercury is one of the most dangerous environmental contaminants. It accumulates in the food chain, reaching higher and higher concentrations in top predators such as seals and large fish. Consumed by humans, methylmercury can lead to a wide range of debilitating mental and physical health effects, including neurological degeneration.

These concerns are that much greater among communities that rely on fishing and hunting for their daily subsistence and to keep their cultures and traditions alive.

If the province of Newfoundland and Labrador is to uphold the rights of downstream Inuit communities, it must find a way to act on the advisory committee’s recommendations.