ST. JOHN’S, N.L.—Long-standing protests over the Muskrat Falls hydro project are escalating—including nine arrests Oct. 17, a march on the provincial legislature and a hunger strike—as reservoir flooding in Labrador is set to start.
“You can’t do this to people. This is still Canada,” said Denise Cole of Goose Bay. She helped organize a peaceful protest followed by a sit-in that temporarily limited public access to the legislature in St. John’s.
At issue are concerns raised by Harvard University researchers that the flooding as part of dam and powerhouse construction may contaminate fish and other wild foods with methylmercury.
The resulting reservoir will cover an area of about 41 square kilometres near Happy Valley-Goose Bay. It will also be upstream from 2,000 Inuit in the Lake Melville region who rely on fish and seal meat.
“Those are my people that are getting arrested and it’s the downstream population … whose health is being threatened,” said Cole. The demonstrators left the legislature voluntarily after about five hours, saying their requests to meet with government officials were ignored.
Labrador Liberal MP Yvonne Jones, who is also parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs, called the arrests “unfortunate.”
“I’m disappointed that people were arrested,” said Jones. “I know these people personally. They’re absolutely outstanding citizens and they have legitimate concerns.”
Jones said she wants to see Premier Dwight Ball and Nalcor sit down and look at how the concerns can be addressed before any flooding is done.
“There is time to really look at what needs to be done here to help mitigate any impact,” she said.
Researchers have suggested clear-cutting the land and removing top soil could limit the risks of methylmercury. The neurotoxin is created as mercury blends with bacteria and is linked to heart issues, intellectual problems in children and other effects.
The province has so far balked at full clearance. Crown corporation Nalcor Energy says it’s monitoring mercury levels but has said its projections indicate contamination in Lake Melville will be diluted to “no measurable effects.”
Gilbert Bennett, Nalcor’s executive vice-president in charge of power development at Muskrat Falls, said Monday in a statement that preparation continues before reservoir flooding begins “later this month.”
Water levels are expected to gradually rise this fall by about one metre per day to 25 metres, he said. After that, levels will go up to 39 metres by 2019.
Gilbert said provincial officials recently met with the Nunatsiavut Government, representing five Inuit communities in Labrador, to discuss its request to fully clear the reservoir.