Nfld. & Labrador

Nunatsiavut, NunatuKavut defend call for Muskrat Falls soil removal

Two Labrador Indigenous groups are defending their decision to support soil removal in the Muskrat Falls reservoir after Innu Nation representative Peter Penashue questioned their motives last week.

Innu Nation calls it a risky experiment, Inuit groups say it'll protect country food

Carl McLean is Nunatsiavut's deputy minister of Lands and Natural Resources. (Bailey White/CBC)

Two Labrador Indigenous groups are defending their decision to support soil removal in the Muskrat Falls reservoir after Innu Nation representative Peter Penashue questioned their motives last week.

Penashue told CBC Radio's Labrador Morning he didn't believe science supported soil removal, and that he thought Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut were supporting it for political gain.

"Our motivation is to protect Inuit rights, Inuit culture, Inuit traditional use of the land in Lake Melville, downstream from the project," said Carl McLean, Nunatsiavut deputy minister of lands and natural resources.

All three Indigenous groups are members of an independent advisory committee formed after large-scale protests against the Muskrat Falls project in 2016.

The committee looked at ways to manage and mitigate methylmercury contamination in Lake Melville after the Muskrat Falls reservoir is flooded.

Methylmercury is released from organic material, including vegetation and soil when land is flooded. It accumulates in the food chain and can be harmful to humans in high amounts.

Both Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut, which represent Inuit people in Labrador, want the soil removed.

Todd Russell, the president of NunatuKavut, says soil removal is the best way to ensure lower methylmercury levels. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"If we remove more of the organic material — that is, if we remove more of the trees, more of the shrubs, more of the topsoil — in an appropriate fashion, then the chances for methylation are reduced," said NunatuKavut President Todd Russell.

"I don't believe anyone disagrees with that very basic and linear understanding."

Russell said NunatuKavut's decision was based on "an abundance of caution."

McLean, too, stressed the importance of curtailing methylmercury before the reservoir is flooded, rather than warning people who eat country food after the fact.

"In our opinion, consumption advisories are not mitigation. Consumption advisories are a reactionary measure that you use as a last option," he said. "We need to do what is reasonable to do before flooding to minimize the impacts of methylmercury."

'Uncertainty cuts both ways'

Both Russell and McLean disputed Penashue's assertion that soil removal had never been attempted on a comparable scale and was therefore dangerous to attempt. 

Russell pointed to studies reviewed by the oversight committee, many of which were not definitive but rather offered a range of possibilities given environmental variables.

"There's uncertainty with some of the science, there's uncertainty with some of the modelling," he said.

"The uncertainty cuts both ways, which means that it could be a lot more methylmercury produced, or there could be a lot less."

Like McLean, who rejected the notion that Nunatsiavut's decision was informed by a desire to craft an impacts and benefits agreement with the province and Nalcor, Russell also denied any ulterior motives.

Peter Penashue, one of two Innu Nation representatives on the oversight committee, says his opinion is based on science. (Bailey White/CBC)

Penashue suggested NunatuKavut was seeking to bolster its case for a land claim agreement with Ottawa.

"Our motive all along has been the health and welfare of our people and the protection of our people's rights," said Russell.

Province decides

The advisory committee's recommendations now sit with provincial Environment Minister Eddie Joyce, who must decide whether or not to accept them.

Provincial Environment Minister Eddie Joyce says the government is reviewing the report from the Independent Expert Advisory Committee on Muskrat Falls. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Speaking to reporters last week, Joyce said the recommendation for soil removal would be carefully considered because support among committee members was not unanimous, and the dissenter, the Innu Nation, owns the land on which Muskrat Falls sits.

Both McLean and Russell encouraged Joyce to accept the recommendation and authorize soil clearing.

"The Muskrat Falls project is affecting lands and waters that are also in the purview of the people of NunatuKavut," Russell said.

"It would be unseemly if the government elevated one Indigenous people's concerns above the concerns of ourselves and the concerns of Nunatsiavut."

McLean suggested Nunatsiavut could take legal action if soil is not removed.

"We know we're not going to be able to remove all the carbon from the system," he said. "If there are impacts we're going to want to address that in some way."