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Halt Muskrat Falls flooding until methylmercury issue addressed: Inuit leader

The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador is seen on July 14, 2015.
The construction site of the hydroelectric facility at Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland and Labrador is seen on July 14, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

The official overseeing five Inuit communities in Labrador is calling on the premier to halt the scheduled final flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir until measures are taken to mitigate potential methylmercury contamination downstream.

Last week, Nalcor Energy said full impoundment of the Muskrat Falls reservoir – a critical step in completing the controversial, over-budget dam – is anticipated to begin Aug. 7, with a target of raising water levels to 39 metres from the current 24.5 metres by the end of September.

READ MORE: N.L. premier to testify before Muskrat Falls inquiry

The news comes weeks after senior government officials told an inquiry into the project’s cost and schedule overruns that the window had closed to “cap” the reservoir’s wetlands, as Liberal premier Dwight Ball had committed to doing, before anticipated impoundment this summer.

Research has indicated that flooding the uncleared reservoir near the dam could cause a spike in methylmercury, formed as vegetation rots under water, in wild food sources used by local Indigenous communities.

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Capping would involve covering vegetation and soil with a thick layer of material such as sand or sandy clay to prevent the release of carbon that could contribute to a spike in methylmercury levels.

READ MORE: Criminal charges withdrawn against 14 people for 2016 Muskrat Falls occupation

Nunatsiavut Government president Johannes Lampe said in a statement Monday that Ball “has repeatedly betrayed our trust” and placed Labrador Inuit’s health and culture at risk by failing to take concrete steps on the methylmercury issue.

Lampe expressed frustration with Ball’s lack of public response to recommendations from an advisory committee established to find ways to mitigate the impact of methylmercury on human health.

“We are extremely disappointed with how the premier has handled the whole Muskrat Falls fiasco,” Lampe said.

“In the spirit of reconciliation, we call on the premier to do the right thing and direct Nalcor not to flood the reservoir until the concerns of Labrador Inuit are meaningfully addressed.”

READ MORE: Audit finds Muskrat Falls cost overruns became obvious soon after megaproject got underway

The nearly complete, $12.7-billion Muskrat Falls dam will harness Labrador’s lower Churchill River to provide electricity to the province as well as to Nova Scotia through subsea cables.

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Now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the filling of the reservoir would bring the beleaguered project closer to reaching full capacity.

The issue of wetland capping arose during Ball’s appearance this month before the Muskrat Falls inquiry. The premier told the inquiry he was disappointed to learn it was too late for capping work.

During his July testimony, Ball maintained he had committed to capping and said it was not neglected for cost reasons. He later told reporters he shared some of the responsibility for the missed window on capping, but added that the procedure would have only mildly offset the effects of methylmercury.