Nfld. & Labrador

Crosbie calls for AG investigation of Muskrat Falls wetland capping failure

The Opposition leader says the auditor general is the only office with the power to find out how the government missed a deadline to reduce the risk of methylmercury rising from flooding at the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam.

PC leader says auditor general review only way to determine what happened

PC Leader Ches Crosbie wants the auditor general to investigate how the government missed its deadline to cap vegetation at the Muskrat Falls reservoir. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Opposition leader Ches Crosbie is calling for the auditor general to investigate how the government missed a deadline to cap vegetation around the Muskrat Falls reservoir to reduce the risk of methylmercury getting into the food chain. 

"There has been a rupture in relations with Indigenous communities as a result of the government's failure to adhere to the agreement they made with them to do the wetland capping," Crosbie said Tuesday in St. John's. 

Was there bad faith in this, or was it simply incompetence?- Ches Crosbie

He noted cabinet ministers and the premier have said there was an unspecified "miscommunication" and it got too late to cap prior to Nalcor's flooding of the reservoir in early August.

"[It represents] a state of failure in our ability to negotiate with, talk to and reconcile with one of the important Indigenous groups in the province," said Crosbie, who said he did not directly consult with those groups before making the request.

"This is a way forward to try and heal that rift," he said.

Public money involved

However, that the miscommunication involved spending $30 million of public money and an offer of compensation if methylmercury levels rise and people can't eat as much country food are also of major concern to Crosbie.

"There is an overarching public interest in getting to the bottom of this, just purely from a financial administration viewpoint, and that's where the auditor general properly gets engaged," he said. 

Water at the Lower Churchill River buried trees Aug. 13 as Nalcor flooded the reservoir to generate electricity at Muskrat Falls. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

To further his argument, Crosbie referenced the commissioner of the Muskrat Falls public inquiry calling the gaps in evidence as to how the government missed the deadline "confounding." 

"Was there bad faith in this, or was it simply incompetence?" he asked. 

Crosbie asks committee to engage AG

An independent expert advisory committee comprising representatives from Indigenous groups that live downstream of the project unanimously recommended wetland capping as a way to mitigate any risks posed by reservoir flooding, at a cost of $30 million. 

The risks are associated with country food like fish becoming contaminated as trees and other vegetation at the reservoir break down during flooding, releasing methylmercury into the ecosystem.

That issue remains deeply concerning to the Nunatsiavut government, which unlike the Innu Nation and NunatuKavut, did not accept its $10-million share of the $30 million earmarked for capping to use as they see fit.   

Nunatsiavut described that offer as "hush money," which Crosbie referenced Tuesday, adding "most people would say that it certainly does seem to have that appearance."

The government said capping could prevent methylmercury levels from rising by two per cent, so it did not have a significant effect, and levels will be continuously monitored. 

Crosbie has asked the Liberal-majority public accounts committee to trigger an auditor general investigation, looking at relevant documents from July 2018 to February 2019, when cabinet said it realized it was too late to conduct wetland capping. That committee is chaired by Tory MHA Kevin Parsons, who told CBC News he will take the request to his fellow committee members in September. 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes