Too late to mitigate: Inquiry hears how wetland capping no longer a Muskrat option

The measure would have cost an estimated $20 million, and was the unanimous recommendation of an independent expert advisory committee in April 2018.

Siobhan Coady denies government deliberately 'stalled, schemed' until it was too late to take action

Siobhan Coady, provincial natural resources minister, testified Thursday at the Muskrat Falls inquiry. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

The provincial government came under fire at the Muskrat Falls inquiry Thursday, accused of inaction on a measure that would reduce the threat of methylmercury once the reservoir on the Churchill River Tsis flooded this summer.

The one being asked the tough questions was Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady, the minister responsible for Nalcor, the province's energy corporation.

"Were there mistakes made? If there were, I don't think they were deliberate," Coady said during a day of testimony.

It's now too late to carry out targeted wetland capping at Muskrat Falls in order to mitigate concerns about methylmercury, despite a recommendation by the Liberal government in January that such a measure be taken.

Cost roughly $20M

The measure would cost an estimated $20 million, and was the unanimous recommendation of an independent expert advisory committee in April 2018.

The IEAC, is the committee is known, comprises representatives of Indigenous groups in Labrador that live downstream of the project and fear methylmercury levels in the country food supply will rise to dangerous levels once the Muskrat reservoir is flooded.

Methylmercury concerns have been a constant — and controversial — issue, sparking protests in late 2016 and temporarily interrupting work on the project.

Various Indigenous leaders have also made impassioned presentations to the inquiry about their fears of methylmercury contamination.
Barry Learmonth, co-counsel at the Muskrat Falls inquiry, said the provincial government failed to address legitimate concerns by Indigenous groups. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Wetland capping was viewed as a measure to mitigate those fears, though some evidence suggests the impact would be largely symbolic.

But with full flooding of the reservoir expected to begin in mid-July, the window of opportunity to take such action passed months ago, according to evidence.

Did government 'stall and scheme'?

So how was such an oversight possible? Did government "stall and scheme" until such a time that capping was no longer an option?

There has been a failure by government … to properly, responsibility and in good faith address the legitimate concerns of the Indigenous groups.- Barry Learmonth

That's how the question was posed to Coady by inquiry co-counsel Barry Learmonth.

"I suggest to you there has been a failure by government … to properly, responsibly and in good faith address the legitimate concerns of the Indigenous groups," said Learmonth.

Coady deflected, saying wetland capping was an issue being handled by the Department of Environment, but added, "I don't see a deliberate attempt within government not to address this situation."

So why did government not endorse the capping plan until nine months after the IEAC reached its conclusion? And after it was already too late?

"I cannot tell you why decisions were not taken during a period of time in another department," Coady said.

Coady admitted there is "some indication of time lag, but it would be better directed as to why to those that were involved at the time."
The Muskrat Falls power station and other infrastructure is seen here in this fall 2018 photo provided by Nalcor Energy. As of the end of April, overall construction on the Lower Churchill Project had reached 98 per cent. (Nalcor)

It didn't come up during her testimony, but the capping issue may have been overshadowed by politics. The provincial government was dealing with a House of Assembly harassment scandal last year that eventually led to a shakeup in Environment when MHA Eddie Joyce was dumped by the Liberals.

The Environment portfolio was handled by an interim minister for months, with a full-time minister not appointed until last fall.

Coady, meanwhile, said the government has been attempting to address environmental concerns.

Testing detects no increase in methylmercury

The reservoir has been elevated for several years, and Coady pointed out that ongoing testing has not detected an increase in methylmercury levels, and said wetland capping would only mitigate methylmercury levels by between one and two per cent, "should it be raised."

Despite this, she admitted, a different outcome would have been helpful.

"But I cannot tell you why the decision wasn't made until January 2019."

The reservoir is expected to be fully flooded by September, with first power from Muskrat scheduled for late in the year.

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Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, based in St. John’s. He previously worked for the Telegram, the Compass and the Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at