Rigolet Labrador Darren Calabrese

Mercury rising: how the Muskrat Falls dam threatens Inuit way of life

With soaring food prices, Inuit living downstream of the massive hydro project say they’re faced with the impossible decision of eating contaminated land-based foods or abandoning traditional practices

This is part two of a three-part, reader-funded series on the Muskrat Falls dam inquiry.

Marjorie Flowers grew up in the Labrador community of Rigolet on the shores of Lake Melville, eating nutrient-rich Inuit foods like brook trout and seal. Traditional foods still form the backbone of her extended family’s diet, as they do for thousands of Inuit who hunt seal each April and catch salmon in June.

Even if Flowers wanted to buy all her food from local grocery stores, “the price of food here in Goose Bay is just outrageous,” she said. “We’re paying $30 for a small chicken.” A medium-sized cabbage costs $4 or $5, while a package of cheddar cheese fetches $18.

“Half the people here can’t afford to buy from the stores,” Flowers told The Narwhal. “We’ve depended on that food for decades and centuries as a way of life.”

But this spring will be the last that Flowers and her daughter, who is five months pregnant, consume country food from the Lake Melville area without fear of health impacts from methylmercury, a neurotoxin so dangerous the World Health Organization ranks it among the top ten chemicals of public health concern.

In the next year, when the Muskrat Falls hydro dam on Labrador’s lower Churchill River floods an area twice the size of the city of Victoria, methylmercury will immediately start to contaminate the food chain as microbes feed on inorganic carbon stored in flooded soils and vegetation, setting off a sequence of events.

Methylmercury impacts of hydro dams

“It’s widely known that hydroelectric development has a methylmercury impact,” said Ryan Calder, a Duke University postdoctoral associate and expert on the methylmercury impacts of hydroelectric development. “That is beyond question at this point.”

When large hydro dams flood river valleys and forests, microbes convert inorganic mercury — found in soils worldwide in greatly increased levels due to coal-fired power plants and other industrial activities — into methylmercury, the type of mercury of greatest concern for human health.

Most human exposure to methylmercury comes from eating fish, although marine mammals like seals and other traditional foods can also carry high levels.

“This is what our body consists of — our cellular make-up is fish and seals and the wild birds that come into the rivers,” Flowers said.

Rigolet Labrador partridge Darren Calabrese

Dane Shiwak, 8, removes his gloves to absorb the warmth from the breast of a white partridge that he shot with his father Martin while on the land in Rigolet in northern Labrador. Martin Shiwak, an experienced Inuit trapper and hunter, tries to impress upon his children the importance of understanding how to live off the land on Labrador’s rugged northern coast. Photo: Darren Calabrese

“It’s all the other seafood and wildlife, too, that we depend on in Lake Melville. It’s the smelts, it’s the trout, it’s the shellfish, it’s all the fur-bearing animals in the area that depend on the seafood. And the seals in the spring. Right now, it’s spring hunting for seals. It’s not an industrial seal hunt here, it’s for sustenance.”

Mercury impacts extend far beyond area considered in environmental assessment: Harvard study

Lake Melville, a brackish subarctic estuary downstream from the Muskrat Falls dam, was not included in an environmental assessment conducted by Nalcor, the province’s publicly owned energy corporation.

Nalcor said it did not study Lake Melville — designated an “ecologically and biologically significant area” by the Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat — because it predicted that the Muskrat Falls dam would have no measurable impacts on the estuary, a traditional Inuit hunting and fishing ground.  

But that decision didn’t sit well with Flowers and other Inuit.

In 2014, the Nunatsiavut government, which represents the Inuit Land Claims Area, commissioned a scientific study of the impacts of methylmercury from the Muskrat Falls dam. Calder, a civil engineer and PhD student at Harvard University’s School of Public Health at the time, was one of a half-dozen American and Canadian scientists who worked on the peer-reviewed research project, led by Harvard.

There was no reason for Nalcor to cut off the Muskrat Falls dam environmental assessment study area at the boundary of Lake Melville, Calder told The Narwhal.

“There’s no scientific basis to say that there’s no impacts. There’s all kinds of data from Quebec and Brazil that show that in many cases downstream impacts are greater than from reservoirs … the methylmercury comes from the bottom of the reservoir and what comes out of the dam is disproportionately the methylmercury-rich bottom waters.”

“A lot of data from Quebec over the past 40 years has shown very clearly that when you dam a river over the next few years the mercury levels in the fish increase.”

Muskrat Falls Mercury Map

A Harvard-based study found methymercury impacts extend far beyond the region assessed in Nalcor’s environmental assessment. Source: Nunatsiavut Government / Harvard. Map: Dezine Studio / The Narwhal

From Minimata to Grassy Narrows: the rise of methylmercury contamination

Methylmercury surfaced as a global concern in the 1950s, when four people from the Japanese coastal city of Minamata were admitted to hospital with mysterious neurological diseases characterized by general muscle weakness and damage to hearing, speech and vision.

Eventually 900 people in Minamata died and several thousand more were afflicted with serious and, in many cases, permanent symptoms that also included kidney, lung and skin ailments.

The culprit turned out to be methylmercury in waste water discharge from a chemical plant. The mercury had quickly travelled up the food chain as Minamata residents consumed their traditional diet rich in local fish and shellfish.

Two decades later, methylmercury contamination made headlines in Canada when residents of the Grassy Narrows First Nation in northern Ontario were poisoned after eating fish from the English-Wabagoon river system, tainted by a mill that dumped industrial effluent containing methylmercury into the water.

Residents of Grassy Narrows still suffer from a host of chronic health problems, including language and speech disorders and vision troubles.

The Muskrat Falls study experimentally flooded soils from the future reservoir area, showing a spike in methylmercury concentrations within 72 hours, and a 14-fold increase in methylmercury concentrations within 120 hours, with elevated levels expected to last decades.

Inuit reliance on traditional foods

The study found that human exposure to methylmercury could increase by up to 1,500 per cent because of the Muskrat Falls dam. Locally caught wildlife represents a large fraction of food consumed by Inuit living around Lake Melville, constituting 70 per cent of their future exposure to mercury, according to the study, which noted that country foods are at the heart of Inuit health, well-being and culture.

Those country foods carry significant nutritional benefits, according to researchers. On days that country food is consumed Inuit diets have significantly less fat, carbohydrates and sugar and more protein and essential micronutrients such as vitamins, riboflavin and iron.

Because environmental systems are hugely complex, no one really knows what the impact will be until impoundment, Calder said, so scientists used environmental models to characterize the likely range of impacts on both the environment and human health.

They developed estimates for the impact the Muskrat Falls dam would have on methylmercury levels in the river and Lake Melville and connected those estimates with a dietary study to understand impacts on human exposures. Then they assessed those increases in the context of the health benefits of eating foods like fish.

“On the one hand methylmercury is bad. You don’t want to increase exposure to methylmercury. But, on the other hand, fish and seal and other nutritional foods are very nutritious,” Calder said.

“We didn’t find anything to suggest that people are going to drop dead or face acute medical distress as a result of the increases. Grassy Narrows is a whole other magnitude of risk.”

Among other predicted outcomes for Muskrat Falls, researchers found “some risk of delayed neurodevelopment of children born to mothers with elevated exposures.” IQs in the next generation would be reduced, “fractions of an IQ point, on average,” according to Calder.

Increased exposures to methylmercury could also lead to a higher risk of heart disease and other health impacts, Calder said.

Derrick Pottle Rigolet Darren Calabrese Muskrat Falls

Derrick Pottle, an experienced Inuk trapper and hunter whose diet is 95 per cent sourced locally, carries sealskin boots and a caribou jacket from the loft of his shed while preparing for a hunting trip in Rigolet. Pottle’s diet of wild game, salmon, berries, trout and seal would have been similar to his ancestors living in Hamilton Inlet roughly 8,000 years ago. Photo: Darren Calabrese

Canada’s guidelines for human consumption of methylmercury are weaker than those in the U.S.

Under the Canadian guidelines, the Harvard study found that more than 200 Inuit will potentially exceed health guidelines for methylmercury ingestion if the future reservoir area is partly cleared of trees and brush. Under U.S. guidelines, that number rises to more than 400 individuals under a high methylmercury scenario.

Calder’s modelling drilled down into questions like whether or not eating less trout would be a good decision or a bad decision given the health benefits of consuming it and the alternative foods available. One of those alternative foods is Atlantic salmon, which will have much lower mercury levels because they spend most of their life at sea.

Calder said there is room within the traditional diet to adapt and eat more species that are lower in mercury to counterbalance mercury increases in other food such as seal.  

“We shouldn’t tell people to be afraid of local food … If you’re worried about mercury and instead of eating trout you eat Doritos, that’s not a health protective response. You’re better off eating more mercury.”

‘A way of life that has existed for centuries’

But that’s of little solace to Flowers, who says she is “not comfortable” at the thought of her pregnant daughter and future grandchild eating traditional foods tainted with methylmercury. She views the Muskrat Falls dam as one more serious threat to the long-term survival of Inuit culture, with its deep connection to the land.

“It infuriates me,” said Flowers. “It really does make me so mad that there’s a group of people, most of them Aboriginal, that have concerns about a way of life that has existed for centuries. And we can’t even be heard. We’re frustrated beyond frustrated.”

In an attempt to draw attention to the impacts of the Muskrat Falls dam, Flowers and 60 others, including Indigenous elders, have blocked the gates to the project and engaged in other acts of civil disobedience. Flowers said she’s been arrested so many times that she’s lost track of the charges against her, which include extortion.

In 2017, Flowers refused to sign a document saying she would stay away from the Muskrat Falls gates where protests were taking place.

” … all I’m doing is standing up for the rights of my people and a way of life that originated here first.”

“That’s when they incarcerated me. The took me to a jail cell down here in Goose Bay and then half an hour later I was on a flight to St. John’s and put in [Her Majesty’s] men’s penitentiary for 10 days.”

After Flowers was flown back to Labrador, she was placed under house arrest for 29 more days.  

“I’m the one being punished and being made to look like an irrational bad person when all I’m doing is standing up for the rights of my people and a way of life that originated here first,” she said.

“We were the first people here. And now we’re being trampled on and silenced by this colonial system that we can’t win against.”

Escalating protests led the Newfoundland government to strike an independent expert advisory committee to review science and traditional knowledge and examine ways to reduce methylmercury contamination from the Muskrat Falls dam.

While Nalcor accepted the committee’s recommendations about aquatic program monitoring and methylmercury modelling and acted on them, at least in part, it has ignored other important recommendations, according to Rodd Laing, director of environment for the Nunatsiavut government.

Those include a recommendation that Nalcor undertake targeted removal of soil — the most immediate contributor to a spike in methylmercury — and capping of wetlands prior to flooding in order to minimize contamination of local food sources.

Nalcor has also ignored three out of four recommendations made by the Nunatsiavut government as part of its Make Muskrat Right campaign, including to clear all trees, vegetation and soil from the future reservoir area.

Removing soil and clearing all the trees and brush would add to the cost of the hugely over-budget $12.7 billion project, now the focus of a two-year provincial inquiry.

Muskrat Falls Public Inquiry

Chief financial officer Derrick Sturge of Nalcor Energy leaves the Muskrat Falls inquiry in St. John’s, N.L., on March 27, 2019. Photo: Paul Daly / The Narwhal

“There’s also a huge cost to Indigenous peoples if the level of mitigation is not appropriate for this project,” Laing said in an interview.

“Based on the science and the modelling that’s been done, this it the one chance you have to mitigate the impounding of the reservoir. As soon as you put water on that you’ve lost the opportunity to mitigate any of these methylmercury impacts.”

Nalcor has already started to bring up the reservoir level, aiming for the full 39-metre height later this year — about the size of a 13-storey building — and for full power next year.

“The methylmercury is accumulating as we speak,” Flowers said.

In a statement emailed to The Narwhal, Nalcor said it has put many resources into understanding changes in methylmercury levels “and we remain committed to continuing this in the future to ensure the health and safety of those living in the Muskrat Falls project area.”   

Nalcor said its methylmercury monitoring plan will track changes in methylmercury concentrations in water and sediment at 11 locations along the lower Churchill River, from Grizzle Rapids to Rigolet, following increases in the water levels with the creation of the Muskrat Falls reservoir.

To date, concentrations of methylmercury measured have “generally remained low,” Nalcor said, noting “a couple of slight increases in methylmercury” that do not pertain to the downstream area around Goose Bay and Lake Melville.

“Based on all of the information and data collected to date, the increase in methylmercury in fish predicted would result in an extremely low chance of risk to human health from eating fish from Goose Bay or Lake Melville at peak levels following raising the water levels to full height,” Nalcor stated.

“Based on these predictions, local residents would continue their land and resource use, including consuming a healthy, traditional diet.”

That statement is echoed by BC Hydro, which says people will be able to continue consuming bull trout and other fish species once the Site C dam floods 128 kilometres of the Peace River and its tributaries, putting them under up to 15 stories of water.

“. . . fish mercury levels in the reservoir will increase for a time, but the increase is predicted to be sufficiently low that it will not create risks to fish, wildlife or human health,” says a 2018 BC Hydro fact sheet on Site C and methylmercury, which points out that fish will be tested for methylmercury contamination after flooding.

BC Hydro bases its findings on a 2012 study of methylmercury it commissioned. There has been no independent review of Site C’s methylmercury impacts on human health and the environment.

Muskrat Falls construction Nalcor

The Muskrat Falls dam under construction in April 2018. Photo: Nalcor Energy

‘Time wasted’

Memorial University scientist Trevor Bell called the lack of action to reduce the impacts of Muskrat Falls mercury contamination “time wasted.”

“Nothing has really happened since the fall of 2017,” said Bell, a member of the science advisory committee that formed part of the independent expert advisory committee.

“One of the things the engineers have said is that, in order to [carry out] some of the recommendations of the advisory committee, time is a critical issue. The government has let time drain away to some degree.”

Bell said the “wait and see” approach to see if methylmercury levels are elevated above safe guidelines isn’t good enough, given that available science suggests there will be a health impact on Inuit living downstream of Muskrat Falls.

“Here we should be doing everything we can to limit increased methylmercury in the system,” Bell said in an interview. That includes reducing the amount of soil with organic carbon in the system and covering up wetlands where organic carbon may be exposed to flooded water, he said.

Rigolet Labrador Darren Calabrese

The Inuit community of Rigolet. Photo:
Darren Calabrese

Failing to take every measure possible to limit mercury contamination of traditional Indigenous food sources in Nunatsiavut results in a “morally unacceptable harm” imposed without adequate consideration of Inuit human rights, Bell said.

“It affects Indigenous rights to basically impose food advisories on them because of elevated methylmercury.”

These rights are protected by the Labrador Inuit Lands Claims Agreement, the Canadian Constitution and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In February, Flowers testified at the Muskrat Falls dam inquiry, telling commissioner Richard LeBlanc that she had listened to plenty of testimony about the project being over-budget and behind schedule and that she didn’t really care about those things.

Because more fundamentally — to me, as a human being, as an Indigenous woman, as a person who occupies this land, whose ancestors occupied this land for centuries — we’re the ones who will face annihilation as far as I’m concerned,” Flowers told the inquiry, which seeks to determine why the Muskrat Falls dam proceeded.

“And this is one step in that direction. If you’re taking away my food source, what else are you going to take next?  

Flowers said in an interview that there are “really no words” to describe how she feels about the impending contamination of Inuit country foods with methylmercury.

“I feel very passionate about continuing to spread the message. I feel so angry that we’re ignored.”

Sarah Cox is an award-winning author and journalist based in Victoria, B.C. She got her start in journalism at UBC’s…

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