Open Letters: Inuit rights and downstream impacts of the planned Muskrat Falls dam
November 09, 2015
House of Assembly
Confederation Building, East Block
P.O. Box 8700
St. John’s, NL A1B 4J6
RE: Inuit rights and downstream impacts of the planned Muskrat Falls dam
Dear Premier Paul Davis, Mr. Dwight Ball, and Mr. Earle McCurdy,
Amnesty International is deeply concerned that the potential for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam to cause serious harm to downstream Inuit communities has not been properly dealt with, as required both by Canadian law and international human rights standards. We are writing this letter to you in your capacities as party leaders because we believe this is a pressing human rights concern that, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming provincial election, requires action and vigilance from both the government and the entire legislative assembly.
The planned reservoir is upstream from Lake Melville, a large estuary located mostly within established Inuit lands. Inuit communities rely on Lake Melville for hunting and fishing. The estuary is therefore crucial to the exercise and enjoyment of Aboriginal rights and other human rights, including the right to culture, the right to health, and the right to livelihood. These rights are protected under the Canadian Constitution and in a large body of international human rights law, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The Supreme Court of Canada has set out a series of mandatory safeguards to protect the rights of Indigenous peoples. A process of meaningful, good faith consultation is intended to determine what accommodations are needed to protect Indigenous rights, with greater accommodation afforded based on the strength of the rights and seriousness of the potential impacts. Complementary standards of protection of Indigenous rights through Indigenous peoples’ participation in decision-making are well-established in international human rights law.
It appears that these standards of protection have not been met in respect to the rights of Inuit communities who rely on the Lake Melville estuary.
During the assessment process for the Muskrat Falls dam, the provincial energy corporation, Nalcor Energy, predicted that the project would have no significant downstream impacts on Lake Melville. The Nunatsiavut Government has contested this claim based on independent studies and Inuit knowledge of the environment.
New research by scientists from Harvard University not only supports Inuit concerns, but raises new, even more profound concerns.
The study by the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found higher than expected levels of methylmercury in waters flowing into Lake Melville. The scientists concluded that a combination of environmental factors – including the particular kinds of plankton found in the region, the impacts of global warming and melting sea ice, and the interaction of fresh and salt water in the estuary – create in effect a “perfect storm” for the accumulation of mercury in the food chain. This is of particular concern because of the high likelihood that the flooding of the reservoir for the Muskrat Falls dam will release even more methylmercury into the river system and Lake Melville downstream.
In a simulation of the effects of flooding in the area scheduled to be inundated by the Muskrat Falls dam, the same team of scientists found that even in ideal conditions, the levels of methylmercury flowing into Lake Melville will increase by 25 to 200 percent. They warn that unless the vegetation, leaf litter and organic matter are carefully removed from the reservoir area, the actual increase in mercury levels could be much higher.
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 large fish and seals. Consumed by humans, mercury can cross the blood-brain barrier, leading to cardiovascular effects in adults (e.g. higher risk of heart attack), and neurological and cognitive impairment among infants and children. These concerns are that much greater among communities who rely on fishing and hunting for their daily subsistence and maintenance of their cultures and identities.
Amnesty International has a long history of working alongside the Grassy Narrows First Nation, an Anishinabe community in northwestern Ontario devastated by the mercury contamination of their river system in the 1960s. We have seen the tragic harm that has been revisited on generation after generation of their children by the lingering poison in their waters. It is clear to us that every effort must be made to avoid inflicting such harm on other communities.
We are aware that the Nunatsiavut Government has not opposed the Muskrat Falls dam but has instead called for rigorous mitigation measures to protect the health and livelihoods of its people. These measures include a full clearing of the reservoir before flooding; negotiation of an Impact Management Agreement with the Nunatsiavut Government before flooding; establishment of an independent Expert Advisory Committee to advise on the design of and audit a credible and predictive downstream monitoring program based on the best available knowledge; and significant Inuit participation in high-level environmental monitoring and management decisions.
Many of these proposed accommodations have been previously raised, including in numerous submissions to the Joint Review Panel that carried out the environmental assessment and in subsequent legal challenges to the decision-making process. The independent Joint Review Panel also recommended that Nalcor fully clear the Muskrat Falls reservoir and negotiate with downstream communities regarding mitigation of serious methylmercury impacts before flooding occurs. The provincial government has had ample time to act on these recommendations.
Now with the latest evidence from the Harvard study, there is even more reason to act. We therefore urge party leaders to acknowledge the situation, clearly state their position, and work collaboratively with the Nunatsiavut Government with the goal of ensuring the greatest possible mitigation of the downstream impacts of the Muskrat Falls dam.
Amnesty International Canada