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Lower Churchill Falls Project Phase 1 (Muskrat Falls) in Labrador, Canada


Description:

In 2016, Nalcor Energy -- a Crown corporation of the Newfoundland and Labrador government, started to build a multi-billion-dollar hydroelectric dam at Muskrat Falls on the lower Churchill River in Labrador, Canada. The project is based about 30 km west of Happy Valley-Goose Bay [1]. Nalcor Energy said back then that the power generated by the Muskrat Falls project, which consists of two dams and a powerhouse, will help keep electricity rates stable for consumers in the long term [1].

However, a significant step required to finish the project and generate the energy was the flooding of a 41-square-km of the dam reservoir. Soil and plants naturally contain mercury and the flooding can cause them to release carbon that triggers a process called methylation, resulting in the formation of a toxic substance -- methylmercury [1].

Given the methylmercury issue, the Nunatsiavut government, representing Inuit Nation in Labrador, started a "Make Muskrat Right" campaign. It was stated how Nalcor's mega-project wasn't properly managing the risk of contaminating the Churchill River with methylmercury, which, in turn, could flow downstream to Lake Melville, where many Inuit people live [2].  While methylmercury accumulates in Inuit territory, Inuit communities will see no benefits from Muskrat Falls, the campaign furthermore argued.  Despite high levels of energy insecurity along the Labrador Inuit coast, all of the power is being exported out of the region, the Inuit protesters living off the site continued [3].

The Nunatsiavut Government said how the reservoir flooding now underway leaves Inuit Peoples vulnerable to physical and cultural harm associated with anticipated increases in methylmercury contamination traditional foods, such as fish [3]. 

People started to openly protest against the flooding step required as the company argued. Protests included a hunger strike by three Inuit from Labrador, who refused to eat until a political resolution was reached [2]. Some protestors were arrested during the occupation of the Muskart Falls [4] [3]. Furthermore, Nalcor offered three Indigenous governments in Labrador one-third of the $30 million in compensation. Innu Nation and NunatuKavut Community Council accepted $10 million each – but Nunatsiavut representing the Inuit Nation refused the money [3]. 

The Nunatsiavut government later launched a study with Harvard University scientists, "which concluded that methylmercury levels indeed could rise as much as 380 percent in Lake Melville if the reservoir was not cleared of trees, plants and soils, before the flooding. The researchers said that increase could be drastically reduced, to 13 percent, if the reservoir was fully cleared [1] [2]".

Inuit protesters and Nunatsiavut's natural resources minister have publicly said they don't oppose the project itself, but would like that the project is done "right" — and that is to minimize the risk of methylmercury contamination [2].

"Nalcor Energy predicted no significant downstream impacts of the dam. Credible and independent new evidence shows that their predictions were wrong." [3] At the same time, Nalcor Energy has also commissioned studies and says that although methylmercury levels could increase in the reservoir itself and "immediately downstream" in the Churchill River, it would likely be diluted before reaching Lake Melville [2].

The local people continued to protest and stated:  “With reservoir impoundment underway, the time bomb is ticking on the future of those who depend on the Churchill River and Lake Melville for sustenance, and on the health, culture, and way of life of many Labrador Inuit" [2]. Many non-Indigenous people in local communities, including Happy Valley-Goose Bay, were supporting the Labrador Inuit in their protest [2].

A meeting between both sides was set, and after an 11-hour of negotiations, the Labrador government promised it would seek further independent assessments of the project and create a special committee to look at ways to reduce possible methylmercury contamination. Still, the Labrador government made no promises about fully clearing vegetation and soil from the Muskrat Falls reservoir [2].

Then, Nunatsiavut Leader called on the protesters to go home and for the hunger strikers to stop [2]. However, protesters who had occupied the Muskrat Falls workers quarters on Oct 22nd, 2016 walked out on Oct 26th, 2016 still having concerns over the flooding of the reservoir [5].

Two years after the dam project started (2018), protesters said the provincial government and Nalcor overlooked the dam's construction, and have not addressed the dam's impact on their culture [4]. They are still worried that the land they live on, and the wild food they rely on, will be damaged by the hydro-electric development's flooding and resulting in the rise of the methylmercury levels [4].

UPDATE OCT2020: "The Innu Nation of Labrador announced Oct. 6 that it is seeking $4 billion in damages from Hydro-Quebec over its mega-dam on the Upper Churchill River. The suit, filed in the Supreme Court of Newfoundland & Labrador, seeks compensation for the theft of ancestral Innu land in 1967." [6]

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Lower Churchill Falls Project Phase 1 (Muskrat Falls) in Labrador, Canada
Country:Canada
State or province:Newfoundland and Labrador
Location of conflict:Muskrat Falls
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Specific commodities:Electricity
Water
Land

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Muskrat Falls Generating Station Reservoir impoundment was completed in 2019 with the flooding of 41 km2 of land to create the 101 km2 reservoir. Containment was completed by a two-part concrete dam totalling 757 metres long. This will power an 827 MW generating station -- the controversial project of Nalcor Energy at the expense of frontline, predominantly Indigenous communities, and their waters. These communities have relied on the Mistashipu River (Churchill River) for their culture, livelihoods, sustenance, economy, and more for millennia. The construction and operation of the Muskrat Falls Generating Station has disrupted the ability of Indigenous communities to practice their traditional pursuits and has caused cultural genocide.

On November 20, 2017, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador established the Commission of Inquiry Respecting the Muskrat Falls Project to investigate project mismanagement, delays, cost overages, and issues with Indigenous consultation. The project was initially estimated to cost (Canadian dollars) $6.2 billion, it has now run over $12.7 billion in cost and is still not fully operational as of June 2020.

The Muskrat Falls Inquiry found that Nalcor acted irresponsibly in many different aspects of this project (financially, management-wise, environmentally, and with regards to Indigenous consultation and communication). A summary and list of applicable quotes from the summary can be found here (https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aXjNDNafUQvYYsOmhRdDjFUERlvRNnGxlPck0hKf2NM/edit?usp=sharing).

The construction of the Muskrat Falls project involved the flooding of lands to create reservoirs that disturb trees and soils. Natural processes transform those materials into methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Life-cycle emissions of some large scale hydropower facilities can be over 0.5 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. Natural gas burning for comparison has life cycle emissions averaging between 0.6 and 2 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, the world’s large dams are responsible for 23% of all methane emissions due to human activity.

Project area:4,100
Level of Investment:10,000,000,000
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:8,000
Start of the conflict:01/10/2016
Company names or state enterprises:Nalcor Energy from Canada - Project developer
Hydro-Québec (HQ) from Canada
Relevant government actors:Labrador government (approved the project)
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Inuit Nation https://www.itk.ca/about-canadian-inuit/
Nunatsiavut government https://www.nunatsiavut.com/
Labrador Land Protectors https://www.facebook.com/labradorlandprotectors/
Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, Inc. http://www.grandriverkeeperlabrador.ca/
Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens Coalition http://www.mfccc.ca/
North American Megadam Resistance Alliance http://northeastmegadamresistance.org/

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Local scientists/professionals
Inuit
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of a network/collective action
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Objections to the EIA
Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Refusal of compensation

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Groundwater pollution or depletion, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Potential: Accidents, Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Deaths, Other Health impacts
Other Health impactsMethylmercury
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Displacement, Displacement

Outcome

Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Court decision (undecided)
Repression
Technical solutions to improve resource supply/quality/distribution
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Proposal and development of alternatives:Because of the flooding of a huge area needed to produce energy, the Inuit protesters were demanding that Nalcor Energy completely clear out the trees, plants and soil in order to reduce the risks of methylmercury. Nalcor agreed to remove the trees, but not the soil. Finally, the flooding took place and covered a huge area with trees and vegetation on it.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the huge effort of the local Inuitu people to halt the project and to make the company clear out all the trees, vegetation, and the soil before the flooding, this was not achieved. The mega project and its controversial flooding on a huge amount of the traditional land took place in the end including a huge amount of trees and vegetation (see the photos of the area flooded by Nalcor Energy).

Sources & Materials

Muskrat Falls Inquiry
https://www.muskratfallsinquiry.ca/

Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/acs.est.6b04447

[3] THE MUSKRAT FALLS HYDRO DAM WILL HARM INUIT HEALTH AND VIOLATE INDIGENOUS AND HUMAN RIGHTS.
http://makemuskratright.com/

[1] CBC News: Battle over Muskrat Falls: What you need to know
https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/muskrat-falls-what-you-need-to-know-1.3822898

[1] Quebec court rules for Newfoundland in Churchill Falls dispute with Hydro-Québec
https://www.theglobeandmail.com/canada/article-quebecs-top-court-rules-for-newfoundland-in-churchill-falls-dispute/

[3] Make Muskrat Right Campaign: THE MUSKRAT FALLS HYDRO DAM WILL HARM INUIT HEALTH AND VIOLATE INDIGENOUS AND HUMAN RIGHTS
http://makemuskratright.com/

[5] The Telegram: Occupiers leave Muskrat Falls camp with doubts about deal
https://www.thetelegram.com/news/local/occupiers-leave-muskrat-falls-camp-with-doubts-about-deal-127941/

[4] CBC News: 'I don't regret one moment': Muskrat Falls protesters 2 years after their occupation
https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/atlantic-voice-muskrat-protest-1.4838023

Human rights impacts of Canadian hydropower
http://northeastmegadamresistance.org/human-rights-violations/

[6] Countervortex, Innu Nation sues Hydro-Quebec

October 14, 2020
https://countervortex.org/blog/innu-nation-sues-hydro-quebec/?fbclid=IwAR0aJDnjTnTENiMcR10RWXW-d5g1nqFEPPCsXw2VXezk8B_sZ3MBSV91CPM

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Canadian hydropower is the equivalent of blood diamonds in Africa - video testimony by Marjorie Flowers
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LA7ErpI5W-4

Youtube: Make Muskarts Right Campaign
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruGPX9FM_LA

Meta information

Contributor:ENVJUSTICE PROJECT ICTA-UAB (KH &JMA). Case reviewed and completed by the North American Megadam Resistance Alliance (NAMRA)
Last update20/10/2020

Images

 

Police at the Muskrat Falls protest

Source: The Compass

Occupiers leave Muskrat Falls camp with doubts about deal

Source: The Telegram

The controversial mega dam at the Muskrat falls

Source: VOCM Local News Now

Trees underwater as Nalcor begins the planned work, after years of controversy

Source: CBC News

Muskrat Falls protest and campaign

Source: National Observer