The Current

Muskrat Falls inquiry 'very much about money' and 'not about people,' says Indigenous group advocate

"Trying to get this dam on the Churchill rivers is something that pretty much every premier since Confederation has dreamed about doing."
A view of the Muskrat Falls north dam, estimated cost of $12.7 billion — more than five billion above the original estimate. (Nalcor)

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Controversy has clouded the troubled Muskrat Falls hydroelectric station since it was first unveiled in 2010.

On Monday, the Newfoundland and Labrador government announced the terms of its inquiry into the over-budget, behind-schedule mega-project — an inquiry first announced in September in response to mounting pressure from critics. 

"This is a project that everyone has questions about, and the issue is that it is such a huge and complicated ... expensive project," says CBC reporter Peter Cowan based in St. John's. 

Opponents are angry the price tag has ballooned to $12.7-billion dollars — more than $5 billion above original estimates, and they're worried about the environmental impacts.

Premier Dwight Ball is flanked by Justice Minister Andrew Parsons (left) and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady (right) as he announces terms for the Muskrat Falls judicial inquiry. (CBC)
Trying to get this dam on the Churchill rivers is something that pretty much every premier since Confederation has dreamed about doing.- Peter Cowan, CBC

​"What government has decided here is the only way to get some answers about what exactly happened, where things went so off the rails is to pass this all over to a judge to be able to spend the next two years trying to untangle this all," says Cowan.

There's a lot at stake here since this project is one of former premier Danny William's "big legacy pieces from the time he was in power," according to Cowan.

"Trying to get this dam on the Churchill rivers is something that pretty much every premier since Confederation has dreamed about doing," Cowan tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

But from the current government who inherited this project two years ago, Cowan says, "they've made it clear, they're not very happy."

Cowan points out the terms of reference for this inquiry does not include specifically looking at environmental concerns raised by many Indigenous groups in Labrador. 

"It says that Indigenous people have to be involved in this inquiry, but it doesn't say that the concerns that they've raised have to specifically be addressed, although government said they've made it broad enough that that is something that justice could look into."

For us, this inquiry is very much about money. It's not about people, or culture, or health.- Denise Cole

What's lacking in this inquiry is a serious point of contention for Denise Cole who represents the concerns of the local Inuit as the communications director for the Labrador Land Protectors.

"It certainly doesn't include our cultural, our environmental, our health impacts that we've identified that will be downstream like the methylmercury poison in our food web, catastrophic dam break and drowning of over a thousand people within two communities that are closest to the dam site, and that sacred space where over, you know, 70,000 artifacts have been found has been taken for profit," Cole tells Tremonti.

"For us, this inquiry is very much about money. It's not about people, or culture, or health."

Opponents of the Muskrat Falls project who live off the land feel the hydroelectric station threatens their livelihood. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

She argues Indigenous leaders that are included in this inquiry ignore "the actual people, which shows a very lopsided approach."

Cole isn't the only one disappointed with the terms of reference outlined Monday by the premier.

Economist David Vardy, a former Chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Utilities Board, has been raising alarm bells throughout the Muskrat Falls project.

He suggests there are a lot of problems underway from construction to what he calls, a flawed business plan.

"They did the numbers wrong, big time," Vardy tells Tremonti.

"The projections for demand were totally exaggerated."

He predicts what likely will happen as a result of rates increasing by double is the demand for power will collapse.

"Which essentially means that there will be no demand for Muskrat Falls power. And that will lead this project, this $12.7 billion project high and dry as a stranded asset which is going to have to be ultimately written off."

Listen to the full segment above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Idella Sturino and Julian Uzielli.

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