Muskrat Falls dam: No guarantees for Inuit health

 “Ninety-five percent of my food is what I eat off of the land.” – Inuit hunter quoted in Harvard University study of potential health impacts of the Muskrat Falls dam 

In a matter of days, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador could begin the first phase of flooding for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric dam. Doing so will set off a chain of events that will threaten the health and culture of downstream Inuit hunters and fishers for generations to come.

Threats to food and culture ignored

A 2015 peer reviewed scientific study concluded that the Muskrat Falls dam would increase levels of deadly methylmercury flowing into the downstream Lake Melville estuary by at least 25 percent and potentially by as much as 200 percent. 

A follow-up study released earlier this year warned that  almost half of the Inuit community of Rigolet would be exposed to methylmercury levels in seals and other wild foods exceeding Canadian health guidelines, with exposure increasing by up to 1500% for some individuals.

Methylmercury is one of the most dangerous environmental contaminants. It accumulates in the food chain, reaching higher and higher concentrations in top predators such as seals and large fish. Consumed by humans, methylmercury can lead to a wide range of debilitating mental and physical health effects, including neurological degeneration.

These concerns are that much greater among communities that rely on fishing and hunting for their daily subsistence and maintenance of their cultures and identities.

It’s well established that flooding for large dams sets off natural processes leading to the release of mercury and its transformation into the deadly form of methlymercury. Despite this, the federal and provincial governments approved construction of the Muskrat Falls dam without a detailed scientific study of the potential effects on the downstream Lake Melville estuary, a crucial gap in knowledge flagged by the independent environmental assessment of the dam.

Urgent action needed

The Inuit government of Nunatsiavut has called for full clearing of all vegetation and topsoil in the reservoir area before flooding, a measure that would significantly reduce the formation of methylmercury. Although a similar recommendation was also made by the environmental review panel, the federal and provincial governments did not make it a condition of approval.

Instead, the federal and provincial governments have called for monitoring of methylmercury in fish and warnings against eating the fish if mercury levels get too high. In other words, the federal and provincial governments have simply accepted the possibility that fish – and eventually seals – will become unfit to eat as just another cost of building the dam.

The result is potentially catastropic for Inuit communities who depend on fish and seals as a central part of their culture and the staple of their diet in a region where store bought food is extremely expensive

The Muskrat Falls dam has already had massive cost overruns. Originally projected to cost around $7 billion, it is currently estimated to cost over $11 billion to complete. The added cost of reducing the mercury contamination pales in comparison to the over-all cost. Newfoundland has asked the federal government to provide guarantees on the bonds needed to cover the additional cost of the dam. Inuit leaders are asking the federal government to take the opportunity to include requirements to reduce the threat of mercury contamination.

Time is running out. Existing permits allow for the first flooding to begin as early as October 1.