23 November 2015

Methylmercury and Muskrat Falls #nlpoli

Muskrat Falls has been the big issue in two successive elections.

In 2011, the parties wanted to talk about the project, while voters didn’t.  It never showed up in the list of any Top Five issues for voters.

The parties wanted to talk about Muskrat Falls because it was something they all agreed on.  The 2011 election was a good example of an election in which the three parties ignored what the voters wanted to talk about and chattered instead among themselves.

Well, in 2015,  Muskrat Falls and its impact on the economy is a huge issue but none of the parties want to talk about it.  The best they’ve done is insist that non-existent export sales will help keep electricity prices low.  It wasn’t true in 2011 and it certainly is nonsense now.

Another Muskrat Falls issue turned up recently and it could prove to be one of the most significant things so far.

A new study by a team of Harvard researchers appeared in September.  The researchers concluded that “over the next decade, regional increases in methylmercury concentrations resulting from flooding associated with hydroelectric development will be greater than those expected from climate change.”

That’s significant because, as Dalhousie’s Meinhard Doelle noted recently, the  “study found that rivers are a major source of mercury to Lake Melville and make up more than 85% of total inputs. ‘  Muskrat Falls will account  for an increase of between 25% and 200% of methylmercury levels in Lake Melville.

Mercury is one of the most toxic substances in existence. It affects the central nervous system in humans.  Exposure to mercury is cumulative.

Doelle was a member of the joint federal-provincial review of the Lower Churchill project.  The panel relied heavily on Nalcor’s own assessments, which discounted any impacts beyond the mouth of the Churchill River. 

“At the time of the report,” Doelle wrote on the Dalhousie Law blog, “the information available to the panel about methylmercury production and biological uptake in Lake Melville was limited and largely based on Nalcor’s modelling work. In reports filed with the panel, Nalcor stated that with few potential exceptions, ‘Goose Bay dilutes any effects originating from upstream to “no measureable effects” level on the key indicator.’”

Doelle’s post lists the recommendations and gives the response of the federal government, provincial government, and the proponent.  Doelle observed that it “is clear from the previous section that some of the panel’s recommendations on methylmercury were rejected, and it seems that others that were accepted have not been effectively implemented to date.”

What’s more,  with “respect to implementation of accepted recommendations, lack of clarity in the government response makes an objective assessment difficult. For many recommendations, governments indicated that they accepted the ‘intent’ of the recommendations, but no appropriate action appears to have been taken.”

Politicians in Newfoundland and Labrador endorse Muskrat Falls unanimously in 2010.  They renewed their enthusiasm for the project in 2012,  despite the fact that some people think the NDP and Liberals opposed the project. 

No one is taking about shutting down the project, although that would be the most sensible decision.  What’s driving political enthusiasm for the project is the mistaken belief that it is economically essential.  it isn’t.  But the belief in its pivotal role will continue to drive politicians to back the project, no matter what.

The methylmercury issue is a powerful incentive to halt the project in addition to any economic imperative.  Unfortunately, as we have seen in the Abitibi expropriation and in Muskrat Falls already,  government’s role as a proponent of megaprojects will almost always trump its role as a custodian of the environment.  That’s what happened with the Conservatives. That’s what will happen with the Liberals. And before the Dippers get all smug,  they ignored the environmental issues as well in their rush to do what the unions and the Nova Scotia New Democrats wanted.  The NDP aren’t any better on this issue.

If methylmercury contamination becomes a significant international or national issue – as we should expect it to be – this will be the issue that binds the next administration to the Muskrat Falls disaster.  Dwight Ball and the Liberals won’t be able to say the project was too far gone to stop.  If the Liberals continue with Muskrat Falls despite the environmental problems associated with the project and the lack of adequate oversight,  the Liberals need to watch out that voters don’t hold them responsible for the whole mess in 2019.