Nfld. & Labrador

Government kept talking about Muskrat Falls wetland capping months after deadline passed, documents show

PC leader Ches Crosbie wants the auditor general to look into the missed deadline. Internal emails and memos offer morsels of insight.

Nalcor told the Department of Municipal Affairs the deadline had passed in January

Water at the Lower Churchill River buries trees in early August as Nalcor floods the reservoir to generate electricity at Muskrat Falls. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Internal documents show the provincial government forged ahead with public messaging and meetings about Muskrat Falls methylmercury mitigation measures even after a deadline to complete the work was missed. 

CBC News has previously reported that a decision to cap wetlands was made in January 2019, though it was not made public at the time. 

That same month, Nalcor vice president Gilbert Bennett sent Municipal Affairs Deputy Minister Jamie Chippett an email explaining that wetland capping was no longer possible, because the construction window had expired. 

"I don't see a scenario where a contractor could complete the capping work after the spring thaw and before scheduled impoundment in mid-July," Bennett wrote. 

Wetland capping is a measure the Muskrat Falls Independent Expert Advisory Committee recommended the province do last year, to reduce methylmercury contamination at the Muskrat Falls reservoir. 

Questioning timeline

The email was released under access to information laws. Already in 2019, there have been several access to information requests to the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment regarding emails, reports and other documents relating to the committee's recommendations, and the government's response. 

Eddie Joyce, Andrew Parsons, Graham Letto and Lisa Dempster have all been environment minister since the recommendations were released in 2018. (CBC)

The department has made 1,754 pages available, which show that months after Bennett's email was sent, officials continued to prepare documents that suggested capping was still on the table. 

"Discussions have been ongoing on whether we should put a capping program in place," read a "Key Messages" note prepared by communications staff in February — one month after Nalcor's vice-president said the work was no longer possible, and one month after the government said it decided to cap. 

"Based on analysis and data collected, we are in a stronger position to make an informed decision," said an "Issue Note" prepared for question period in March — two months after the decision had apparently been made by circumstance. 

The next month, Premier Dwight Ball sent a letter to the leaders of the three Indigenous groups in Labrador.

Among other things, the premier said he wanted "to discuss next steps pertaining to the recommendations related to an impact security fund and physical mitigation."

The letter is dated April 8, 2019 — one year after the committee offered its recommendations, and four months after Bennett told government the time for physical mitigation had expired.

It's in the inquiry

When asked whether the decision to conduct wetland capping was made before or after Nalcor said it was too late, the premier's office said all information related to the Muskrat Falls project — including wetland capping — was provided to the public inquiry and is available on its website. 

"Almost six million records were presented," and officials answered questions about capping, the office said in an email. 

The decision to conduct wetland capping "was made in cabinet in January of this year." 

"When informed the window had closed, officials were asked to look at every possible opportunity as there were intangible benefits," the statement said. 

It also explained water monitoring continuously shows methylmercury levels do not pose a risk to public health. 

'Bad faith ... simply incompetence?'

Earlier this week, Ches Crosbie, the leader of the Official Opposition called for the auditor general to investigate the series of events to determine how the deadline was missed. 

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

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)

The missed deadline became public knowledge six months after Bennett's email. According to The Telegram, a panel of civil servants, including Jamie Chippett, testified under oath at the Muskrat Falls inquiry and explained that the construction window had been missed. 

When the premier later testified, he said he was surprised and frustrated the issue fell through the cracks.

"If there was a gap to be found here, or work that was not completed, it would have been in Municipal Affairs and Environment," he said. 

In July, the provincial government released a statement announcing that $30 million originally earmarked for wetland capping would instead be offered to the Indigenous groups to "improve social and health benefits."

Innu Nation and NunatuKavut Community Council have each accepted their $10 million.

Nunatsiavut, the Labrador Inuit government, has not accepted its share of the money. President Johannes Lampe accused the province of deliberately delaying the decision and then offering the Indigenous groups "hush money" when word got out. 

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