After months of protest from Inuit and other Indigenous groups over Muskrat Falls flooding — including a demonstration this past Monday at the construction site — the province's minister of environment and conservation says his government will take a closer look at the feasibility of further clearing the megaproject's reservoir.
"What we'd do is go through all of the issues and challenges around what it would take to further clear beyond what Nalcor has already done," said Perry Trimper.
The Nunatsiavut Government, which represents Labrador Inuit, has repeatedly pointed to research it commissioned by experts at Harvard University. That study suggests flooding the reservoir could cause methyl mercury levels to spike downstream in Lake Melville, threatening to contaminate food sources, like birds, fish and seals in the region.
Nunatsiavut wants the reservoir cleared of vegetation and soil because researchers believe that will reduce methyl mercury levels.
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Full clearing 'not possible'
Trimper said officials from Nunatsiavut and other Indigenous groups will be invited, along with experts and officials from both the province and Nalcor, to a discussion about the viability of further clearing.
"There are legal, there are regulatory, there are logistics, there are a variety of challenges here, but we're willing to sit down and have a very much informed dialogue," he said.
Nalcor plans to begin flooding as early as Oct. 15, but isn't planning to complete the reservoir until 2019. Only 25 per cent will be flooded this fall, and Trimper said that area is partially cleared.
"We're at a physical point in the project where the flooding needs to occur to protect the integrity of the structure," he said.
"Or we'll lose everything that's been invested to date."
While the province has committed to exploring the options for clearing the remaining 75 per cent of the reservoir, Trimper stressed that complete clearing would be virtually impossible.
"To take all vegetation, to take all soil out of that reservoir is not possible," he said.
"But can more be done? That's what we're willing to take a look at."
National Inuit organization calls for change
While the province and Nunatsiavut continue to discuss mitigation measures, the head of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), a national Inuit organization, said his group is backing Labrador Inuit.
"This is significant because usually ITK works on issues of national importance that impact all Inuit regions," said Natan Obed, ITK president.
"But it is something that other Inuit regions were very clear that they wanted to see justice done for Nunatsiavut Inuit and they were willing to help."
Obed wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in hopes of convincing federal officials to compel the province to do more.
"Requesting that the impacts of the project don't negatively affect our health, and don't further exacerbate our food insecurity issues, and don't poison our people for generations to come — those aren't crazy requests, Those, I think, are requests that any person in Canada could understand and sympathize with."
Nunatsiavut cautiously optimistic
In an emailed statement, Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe said his government wouldn't be satisfied unless Nalcor completes the full clearing.
"Our position has not changed… the entire reservoir must be fully cleared of trees, vegetation and topsoil before any flooding takes place."
Lampe pointed to other commitments from the province, including further discussions about an impact management agreement and the establishment of an independent expert advisory committee — but so far, the details haven't been worked out.