Nfld. & Labrador

Government skipped methylmercury deadline then offered 'hush money,' says Nunatsiavut president

Premier Dwight Ball said it was always government's intention to hit the deadline and that data shows the methylmercury risk isn't as great as once thought.

Premier Ball says deadline was missed because of an 'unintentional oversight'

Johannes Lampe says he is disappointed by government's handling of 'the whole Muskrat Falls fiasco.' (CBC)

The president of the Nunatsiavut government says the provincial government deliberately delayed the decision to start wetland capping so there wouldn't be time left to do it and then offered "hush money" when word got out.

The capping work was aimed at reducing the threat of methylmercury from flooding at Muskrat Falls.

Lampe says government has betrayed Indigenous people living downstream from the project who could be at risk from increased exposure.

"[The] government of Newfoundland and Labrador has prioritized its point of view, disregarded independent peer-reviewed science and placed the health and wellbeing of Labrador Inuit at risk," he said in a statement on Thursday.

"The time bomb is ticking on the future of those who depend on the Churchill River and Lake Melville for sustenance, and on the health, culture and way of life of many Labrador Inuit."

His remarks come a day after Nalcor Energy announced flooding had begun, despite Lampe's pleas to to hold off.

When the Muskrat Falls reservoir is flooded, surrounding trees and vegetation will be submerged. They'll decompose and release methylmercury into the ecosystem, so fish and animals commonly hunted for food in the area will likely have higher levels of the toxic compound, too.

The Nalcor Energy photo of the Muskrat Falls power generating project was taken in May. As of April, the entire Lower Churchill Project was 98 per cent complete. (Nalcor)

The science is divided on just how much of a threat the heightened amounts will pose.

Government set aside $30 million for wetland capping, which would reduce those levels, but didn't start the work soon enough before flooding began.

Premier Dwight Ball says that wasn't on purpose.

"Due to an unintentional oversight, wetland capping was no longer an option," he said in a statement emailed to CBC News Friday evening.

Government offered 'hush money'

Government has since split that $30 million three ways and offered it to Labrador's three Indigenous groups to go toward social and health programs.

Lampe said Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall came to him in July, offering the money as part of an agreement to fund health and social programs for the Labrador Inuit.

"We did not sign that agreement," Lampe said.

"We advised Mr. Marshall, as well as the premier, that offering Labrador's three Indigenous groups a share of this $30 million would be perceived as a form of compensation, or 'hush money.' We remain adamant this money should have been used for what it was intended — to cap wetlands."

Ball did not address that claim in his statement. Instead, he pointed to a growing body of research suggesting that, while methylmercury levels will rise, the increase will not force most people to change their diets.

Premier Dwight Ball says it was never government's intention to let the deadline for wetland capping work slip by. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

That research, mostly carried out by Ryan Calder, who was part of the 2016 study that initially identified possible risks and said methylmercury levels would likely double.

"Calder stated that they didn't find any evidence that would suggest that people would be faced with medical issues as a result of methylmercury increases and that even if they did double, the levels would still be considered safe by Health Canada," Ball said.

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