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By Dr. Trevor Bell

Note: This article originally appeared in the Gazette on April 18, 2016.

Today is both a good day and a bad day for Nunatsiavut and its people, the Labrador Inuit.

A good day because they released the results of their project Lake Melville: Our Environment, Our Health. The report represents a significant achievement for Labrador Inuit and other Indigenous communities across Canada who are struggling to have their voices heard, constitutional rights respected and social justice realized in resource development projects that directly affect them. I am proud to have been the academic program lead on the Lake Melville project.

“For Nunatsiavut, the downstream impacts of the Muskrat Falls project on their people and homeland are potentially too devastating to leave to chance.”

This is the study that Nalcor Energy should have done as proponent for the Muskrat Falls project and one that both federal and provincial governments should have made them do, if they had heeded the recommendations of the project’s Environmental Assessment Joint Review Panel.

For Nunatsiavut, the downstream impacts of the Muskrat Falls project on their people and homeland are potentially too devastating to leave to chance, or to Nalcor’s speculative calculations. To address this uncertainty, Nunatsiavut initiated the Lake Melville: Our Environment, Our Health project. They assembled a team of independent researchers from Memorial University, the University of Manitoba, and Harvard University to carry out a detailed study of Lake Melville estuary, and most notably the downstream fate of methylmercury—a particularly nasty toxin for humans that is abundantly produced in newly flooded reservoirs.

Methylmercury exposure

It was a bad day because of the report findings. The results of the methylmercury research led by Harvard University not only substantiate the Joint Review Panel’s scepticism of Nalcor’s claims of “no measurable effects” downstream, they also indicate that under the current Nalcor plan for reservoir clearing, there will likely be significant bioaccumulation of methylmercury in the Lake Melville food web. Because of their reliance on fish, seals and other wild foods for their diet, hundreds of Labrador Inuit living on Lake Melville will be exposed to methylmercury above regulatory guidelines.

A resident of Rigolet told me that he really hoped our project would find no negative impacts so that he could continue to live the way his people have always lived along Lake Melville. Unfortunately for him and his people, the human health risk assessment conducted by Harvard University indicates that Rigolet residents who eat wild foods may experience an increase in methylmercury exposure of up to 1500% following reservoir flooding.  And almost half the community will exceed the Health Canada guideline for methylmercury exposure.

Consumption advisories—Nalcor’s proposed mitigation measure in case of high methylmercury levels in fish and seal—would perpetuate cultural discrimination and social injustice against Labrador Inuit. As the Joint Review Panel concluded, such advisories would have significant adverse effects on the pursuit of traditional harvesting activities that are central to Inuit culture, health and well-being.

One clear solution

So what is to be done? Must Labrador Inuit be given a chronic dose of methylmercury in order to provide “clean” energy to the rest of the province and beyond? Is it simply the cost of doing business? The Harvard data provide one clear solution. They show that if all vegetation and topsoil is removed from the Muskrat Falls reservoir before flooding then the primary mechanism for methylmercury formation is removed and Labrador Inuit exposure to methylmercury is significantly reduced.

The recent federal government announcement that “science is back” is timely for guiding decisions on the Muskrat Falls project. Also, Premier Dwight Ball’s mandate letter as minister of Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs commits him to working with Aboriginal Peoples and governments “to ensure development decisions are made with openness, transparency and accountability, incorporating the concerns and interests of Aboriginal communities.” Today’s release of the Lake Melville project findings provides critical new evidence for just decision-making by both levels of government and demands a precautionary approach to protect Labrador Inuit from exposure to harm.

Funding disclosure: The Lake Melville: Our Environment, Our Health project was funded by: the Nunatsiavut Government; ArcticNet, a Network of Centres of Excellence of Canada; the Oak Arctic Marine Fund, an initiative under the Tides Canada Foundation; the National Science Foundation; Memorial University; the University of Manitoba; and the federal government.

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