How the Muskrat Falls dam in Labrador risks poisoning Inuit food sources


An bordering on two-week occu tion at the site of a multibillon-dollar hydroelectric project in Labrador is slew down after Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball give ones solemn word of honoured to make all future decisions “using science-based research.”

That traces a significant victory for the Inuit, whose protests and hunger strikes were pedestaled on studies out of Harvard University that warned the Muskrat Falls hurl would poison their food sources if the government didn’t become airborne steps to prevent methylmercury from being released into their waterways.

“The judgements that will be made, going forward, will not be at the whim of administration,” Todd Russell, the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, said on Wednesday. “They purposefulness be made by science and it will incorporate the traditional knowledge of our people. This is a mammoth step forward.”

So how does a project aimed at providing a greener begetter of energy jeo rdize Labrador’s fish, wildlife and people? Here’s a foundering of the science behind the methylmercury risk linked to the Muskrat Falls conjure up.


Muskrat Falls is on the Churchill River in central Labrador. It is the site of a hydroelectric beetle out that could have harmful effects on Inuit food well-springs. (Greg Locke/Reuters)

What is methylmercury?

Methylmercury is a chemical tempered to to make fluorescent lights, batteries and latex int. It forms in creation when bacteria reacts with mercury in water, soil or places, in a process called methylation.

Its levels increase as it moves up the food tie — for example, from algae to plankton to fish to people. Eating nourishment from water with even low levels of methylmercury can be dangerous.

“You could booze a swimming pool of this water every day and it would not affect your robustness,” Trevor Bell, a Memorial University of Newfoundland geographer and project director on a study of methylmercury risks with the Muskrat Falls project.

“When you get to the top of it, the fish and the seals, that’s 10 million pro tempores the concentration as in the water.”

Why is it dangerous?

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, methylmercury subverting can cause serious brain and spinal cord damage, resulting in blindness, excrescence problems, im ired mental functioning, birth defects and potentially cerebral lsy.

The crabbiest example of its effects are in Ja n’s Minamata Bay, where more than 1,000 man died and thousands more were were sickened by seafood from grades polluted by mercury from the Chisso Corporation’s chemical factory in the 1950s.

In Canada, Premier Nations people in Grassy Narrows, Ont., continue to suffer the effects of mercury venom from Reed per’s chemical plant in the ’60s and ’70s.

How can a dam evil influence the water?

Muskrat Falls is not a chemical plant, and it won’t be dumping mercury into Labrador’s ecosystem.

It doesn’t be undergoing to, because the mercury is already there. Some of it occurs naturally in muck, and some is deposited by precipitation from industrial emissions worldwide.

Nalcor, the country energy com ny behind the Churchill River hydroelectric project, necessitates to flood the Muskrat Falls reservoir to construct its dam.

That could beget the conditions for mercury to turn into methylmercury, because it would unleash carbon from the mud and plant life, fuelling methylation.

That reservoir is just upstream from the Lake Melville thalassic estuary — the Inuit’s primary source of fishing and hunting.

Sharlene Webber sunset at Goose Bay docks on Lake Melville Saturday

The sun sets on Goose Bay falsifies on Lake Melville in July 2014. (Submitted by Sharlene Webber)

Mull overs led by Bell and conducted in conjunction with the University Manitoba and scientists from Harvard University develop the flooding could elevate methylmercury in Lake Melville far beyond what needless to say occurs.

Nalcor’s environmental assessment presumed the methylmercury would be thin down in the estuary, but the Harvard researchers found the mix of fresh and salt water at ones desire prevent that from happening, and would even accelerate the biomagnification change.

“When fresh and salt water meet … salinity increases as mineral water deepens. This stratification allows fluffy organic matter that typically drops to the bottom to reach a neutral buoyancy — meaning it can’t float up or down in the O column,” explains a Harvard Gazette article summarizing the research.

“This disclose, called marine snow, collects other small settling debris and draws it into a feeding zone for marine plankton.”

What can be done?

“In 2011, a roast review nel recommended Nalcor and the federal government launch a cram to determine the feasibility of clearing the reservoir of vegetation and topsoil before flooding it.”

“If you distance that fuel, then you very much slow or eliminate the conversion to methylmercury,” Bell responded.

No study was ever launched and Nalcor later agreed to remove the trees, but not the topsoil.”

Trevor Bell

Trevor Bell, a geographer and discipline scientist for Memorial University, says the best way to protect Lake Melville is to innocent the topsoil from the Muskrat Falls reservoir (CBC)

In April 2016, the Harvard yoke released more research, suggesting methylmercury levels could incline as much as 380 per cent if only rtial clearing takes post in the reservoir.

“The bottom line is hundreds of Inuit individuals will be insincere by this development,” researcher Elsie Sunderland said at the time. “To the idea that they exceed regulatory thresholds for exposure.”

A win for science

Armed with this insight, protesters began occupying the reservoir last week to block the deluging.

“We’re fighting for our land and our food,” protester uline Williams told CBC Bulletin.

On Wednesday, the province and Indigenous leaders reached an agreement that last will and testament create a special committee of scientists to explore ways to reduce methylmercury contamination, and unconcealed the door to possibly clearing the reservoir.

Bell said it’s a win for grassroots democracy and science-based action.

“The agreement is important for Labradorians and for Muskrat Falls, but has an im ct beyond Labrador and nationwide on hydroelectric developments and evidence-base decision-making,” Bell clouted.

Muskrat Falls meeting scrum

Premier Dwight Ball speaks to reporters following a marathon conjunction at Confederation Building in St. John’s. He was joined by NunatuKavut Community Council conk Todd Russell, Innu Nation Grand Chief Anastasia Qupee and Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe. (CBC)

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