Almost twenty years ago I made an eleven-day canoe journey down one of North America’s grandest rivers. Our group of a dozen paddlers traveled almost two hundred miles, ferrying back and forth across a river that in places was a mile wide, down a 36- mile-long fjord-like lake, and over four sets of class IV rapids. At the end of a day’s paddling, we pitched our canvas trapper-style tents and laid the floors with carpets of fresh fir boughs. Our guides were four indigenous elders who had grown up traveling the river. We listened to their stories. We ate porcupine and goose and salmon.
We ended our trip down Labrador’s Grand River at Muskrat Falls, where we hauled our canoes and all our gear up a steep portage trail that had been used for generations by the region’s indigenous people, the Innu, and by the settlers who traveled the river in the early twentieth century. The Grand River (renamed the Churchill in the 1960s) in Labrador, Canada, is the longest river in eastern Canada, flowing from the massive Smallwood reservoir near the provincial border with Quebec over five hundred miles into the Atlantic. Today, Muskrat Falls is the site of a 12-billion-dollar mega hydroelectric project; the falls no longer exist.
Images of the site proudly displayed on the developer’s website, the provincially owned Nalcor Energy, show a barren landscape of gravel and concrete, roads and powerlines, and three concrete monoliths obstructing the river, the largest the size of a 25-story building that would occupy an entire city block. Three dams span the quarter-mile width of the river, behind and above which the river pools into stagnant reservoirs. It is only the construction cranes, dwarfed by the excavation for the massive powerhouse, and the lego-block trailers, that offer a sense of scale of a project that has involved hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of concrete and steel, and that has cost, so far, almost seven billion dollars and rising.
I can still make out features of the landscape that identify it as the place where we ended our canoe journey years ago – there is Spirit Mountain, still half covered in forest, swelling from the river valley in the shape of a monster muskrat. The forests that shouldered the river are gone; so is the beach above the falls where we pulled in, and the jumble of boulders where I could see tiny human figures from a distance, the first I had seen in two weeks, moving toward the river’s edge– our guides’ sons and daughters and grandchildren come to meet us to celebrate the end of our journey.
Archeologists who combed the beaches that are now buried under concrete, or which will be flooded, turned up more than 30,000 artifacts – evidence of Amer-Indian campsites, including tools and pottery – going back generations, telling stories of reunions like ours, celebrations that took place at the end of year-long sojourns into the interior, or farewells made as whole families disappeared behind the whitecaps, their canoes loaded with stoves and blankets and flour sacs, all the provisions they would need to carry them through a long Labrador winter.
We traveled the river after the Lower Churchill project was announced in 1998, in support of the Innu’s rightful claim to the river, when it was a joint project between Newfoundland and Quebec (in what was a brief rapprochement between the provincial rivals that would not last). Innu protests upstaged the official announcement; activists insisted that the project would not go ahead without their consent. The Innu had a proven ability to lead effective opposition campaigns. They maintained a campaign of protest over NATO low level flying over their land for a decade, winning the support of citizens of participating NATO countries, who would at last withdraw from the program due to citizen opposition. Quebec was still reeling from its defeat by the Cree over its “project of the century,” the Great Whale/ Nottaway Broadback Rupert (NBR) project, which would have affected a watershed the size of France. In the last decades of the twentieth century, First Nations in Canada and around the world had asserted their rights – rights that were by the new millennium recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, the Canadian Constitution, the World Commission on Dams, and most importantly, Canada’s highest courts. There would be no project, in short, without the Innu’s consent.
Muskrat Falls is not the first large dam on the Grand River. In the global context, dams in Canada have somehow escaped the scrutiny of international critics of large dams. However, it was the 5,000 megawatt Upper Churchill project that advanced the technology of large dams and ushered in the era of large dam building around the world. The largest in the world at the time of its construction in the late 1960s, the dam destroyed one the world’s great waterfalls and flooded an area the size of Maine, in the heart of the Innu homeland. Moreover, Quebec has one of the world’s largest hydroelectric complexes, all of it built on lands occupied by First Nations, and, with the exception of the most recent projects, without their consent or even consultation. The consequences of building large dams on the world’s major rivers, to name only a few, include tens of millions of people displaced, the inundation of some of the most biologically productive areas on earth, an 80 percent decline in species of freshwater fish, and an annual contribution to greenhouse gas emissions of a billion tons.
A decade after our river journey, Newfoundland would begin work on the 800-megawatt Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, having obtained the Innu Nation’s agreement. The Innu Nation, representing the two Innu communities in Labrador, was able to move forward with the land claims process – which had been lingering on the shelf for twenty years – only because it held a card that Newfoundland wanted badly: the Lower Churchill. Without the promise of a Lower Churchill hydro project, Newfoundland had no incentive to settle Innu’s land rights; meanwhile, the Innu’s land was slipping away – with every passing year, more development encroached on their land, and wherever there is a mine, a sport hunter’s cabin, or a piece of property which a white man has claimed as his own, it is taken out of negotiations, forever.
The Innu Nation’s land rights agreement with Canada and Newfoundland/Labrador, the New Dawn agreement, gives the Labrador Innu a 5,000 square mile land base, a limited form of autonomous government, and hunting rights to an additional 13,000 square miles. The agreement includes, forty years late, $2 million a year in compensation for the Upper Churchill project. Included in the deal is their consent to the Lower Churchill project – for which the Innu will receive job contracts and millions in royalties. Though there were dissenters – among them the elders who took us down the river in 1998 – the two communities ratified the agreement in 2010. Consent to the Lower Churchill project was the price the Innu Nation would have to pay for Canada’s recognition of its political sovereignty; the agreement was also seen by its supporters among the Innu Nation leadership as a means of ending a system of welfare colonialism that had persisted since the Innu were forced to settle on reserves in the mid twentieth century, where almost everyone was unemployed, the Innu lived in degrading poverty, and suicide rates were among the highest in the world.
Living downstream of Muskrat Falls, however, are Inuit, Métis, and Euro-Canadian communities who were not consulted and who did not consent. Both the Nunatsiavut and Nunatikavut governments, representing the southern Labrador Inuit and the Labrador Métis, respectively, filed lawsuits to stop the project, with no success. “Traditional lands, wildlife and fish habitat will be destroyed: millions of cubic meters of rock will be removed from the river banks; the river itself will be diverted; vast areas of habitat will be wiped out; known archeological sites will be destroyed; harmful chemicals, including mercury will contaminate the whole ecosystem,” the nations stated in a joint news release. As construction proceeded, they directed their protests at the methyl mercury issue, demanding that the reservoir area be cleared of topsoil to reduce contamination.
In 2009 a group of Harvard researchers began a four-year study on the effects of impounding water behind the dam on methyl mercury levels in Lake Melville, an estuarine fjord that drains the Grand (Churchill) River watershed, and an important source of wild foods for the Inuit. The study forecasted a four-fold increase in mercury contamination from the Muskrat Falls reservoir. “Hundreds of Inuit individuals will be affected by this development,” said Harvard lead researcher Dr. Elsie Sunderland, “to the point that they exceed regulatory thresholds for exposure.”
Mercury is naturally present in river bottom soils, but rotting vegetation under reservoirs triggers a chemical transformation of the mercury from its harmless form into methylmercury, a central nervous system toxin that bioaccumulates through the food chain. Contamination can persist in some species for thirty to fifty years.
The Nunatsiavut “Make Muskrat Right” campaign and the Labrador Land Protectors and Grand Riverkeeper, Labrador “Shut Muskrat Down” campaigns have staged marches, rallies, and civil disobedience in St. John’s, Ottawa, Winnipeg, and Montreal, as well as die-ins, hunger strikes, and a week-long occupation of the work site in 2016, demanding that the topsoil from the reservoir area be removed to reduce methyl mercury contamination. The occupation ended when the Nalcor and the government of Newfoundland/Labrador agreed to set up an independent commission of scientists and aboriginal knowledge-holders on mitigating mercury contamination.
This diverse group, made up of Innu, Inuit, Métis, and Euro-Canadians, who have historically been in separate camps, form an unusual coalition, under the banners of the Labrador Land Protectors and Grand Riverkeeper Labrador. “We are all people who feel we’ve been betrayed by our leaders,” says Roberta Benefiel, a spokesperson for Grand Riverkeeper, Labrador. But it is the lack of unanimity within indigenous groups that makes it difficult for outside NGOs to support the opposition – in the way that they once supported the Cree, for instance, in their opposition to Hydro Quebec. (Exceptions are Amnesty International, and the Council of Canadians, which are supporting the Nunatsiavut “Make Muskrat Right” campaign.) New alliances as well as new divisions exist today as economic inequalities widen between and within indigenous groups. These confusions prevent the kind of clarity that can inspire an effective solidarity movement – as the world saw at Standing Rock, where the Sioux were unanimous in their opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, or at James Bay, where the Cree were unanimous in their opposition to Great Whale NBR.
The reversals and shifts in position have been bewildering to many of the former Cree and Innu supporters of the campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. During the 1980s, when the Labrador Innu were unanimous in their opposition to military exercises on their land, the neighboring Euro Canadian population was mostly unsympathetic; now, it is the Innu Nation that is divided, its leadership siding with the state, while dissenters among them join the ranks of the Inuit, Métis, and Euro-Canadian river protectors who have campaigned to stop the project for more than a decade, using many of the tactics once employed by the Innu Nation. The voices coming from the Euro-Canadian community, which has relied upon the river and its wildlife for centuries, are today expressing the kinds of sentiments we once heard from the Innu, as in this cry from Peggy Blake, a Euro-Canadian from Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in defense of her beloved Grand River: “This is who we are. This is everything to us.”
The scholar Gerald Sider, in his 2014 book Skin for Skin: Death and Life for Inuit and Innu, has called land rights agreements in Canada, engineered to facilitate resource extraction, a form of privatization, effectively preventing public opposition to resource exploitation on what had been “Crown lands” (that is, unceded aboriginal land). While there has been a tenacious protest movement for more than half a decade over Muskrat Falls, no large NGOs will endorse their cause if it means opposing the Innu Nation, who – the solidarity movement must admit if it is not to be hypocritical – have as much right to say yes to developments as to say no. But the default position of not taking a position is still to take a position, which is to passively support the dominant power in conflicts over development.
Despite their ongoing protests, the communities living in the Happy Valley-Goose Bay region near the dam construction site have had to witness the destruction of their river, as the Muskrat Falls project with every passing year proves to be both more expensive and more wasteful. Happy Valley-Goose Bay resident Roberta Benefiel reported the discovery of piles of downed logs – horizontal forests stacked up along hundreds of miles of the newly cleared transmission corridor towards the coast. Forests clearcut for the transmission corridor as well as the reservoir – amounting to 4,000 cubic meters of timber (that is equivalent to two years of the allowable cut for the district) – had simply been piled up and left to rot. “Nalcor told us it’s not responsible for getting the wood to the communities, so it’s just leaving it there,” Benefiel explained. “Nearly every home has a wood stove and could certainly have benefited from receiving this wood for several years to come.”
And this was after Newfoundlanders learned that $120 million had been wasted in the creation of a super “dome” intended to shield the dam’s powerhouse from frigid winter weather during construction. Close to 4,000 tons of structural steel had been fabricated, transported, and installed before the project was abandoned midway, the steel turned into scrap.
More millions of dollars of waste piled up at the metal scrap yard in the form of 350 kilometers of aluminum cable that was mined, smelted, fabricated and installed before the flaw in the cable was discovered, and the already installed hundreds of miles of DC conductor wire was dismantled and dumped in piles the size of houses.
For opponents, all this waste has become a metaphor for the uselessness of a project that has replaced a gift of nature of immeasurable value with a great big mess that is on track to bankrupting a province.
Meanwhile, with each piece of evidence of engineering or management incompetence, residents living downstream of the dams do not feel they will be safe in their homes. They are worried, specifically, about the stability of the north spur—a landmass forming a natural dam composed of marine clay or “quick clay,” a highly unstable compound that is notorious for landslides. This will be the first time a hydro dam has been built on quick clay – and residents living downstream are not pleased to be the test case. Swedish researcher Stig Bernader, an expert on marine clay, has called the structure unstable and unsafe for a dam; Nalcor’s own peer review panel has disputed Bernader’s findings. Residents living downstream are not comforted by the company’s assurances that they will have plenty of advance warning in the event of a dam failure.
The floods of 2017 have heightened their anxieties. In May 2017 – the first spring since the creation of the reservoir – the residents of Mud Lake, a town of 50 residents located beside the Churchill River, had to be airlifted to safety after they woke up in the morning to find twelve feet of water in their homes. Residents blame the dam – this was the first time in living memory the town had to be evacuated due to flooding – but Nalcor insists that it was an unusually wet year and that the company did nothing to manipulate the river’s flow.
If in May 2017 the reservoir had been full, Mud Lake residents would have had 45 minutes to evacuate before their village would have been deluged. “We are sleeping with life jackets under our beds,” the Land Protectors say.
By 2016, the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was officially declared a boondoggle. “Muskrat Falls was not the right choice for the province,” admitted Nalcor’s own CEO Stan Marshall in June 2016, calling the project and its transmission lines “too large” for the province or its energy needs. The cost of the project has swelled from $6 billion in 2012 to more than $12.7 billion in 2017. Electric rates are expected to rise to 22 cents per kilowatt hour as a result, double the current rate. This could mean an additional $150 per month in electricity bills for Newfoundlanders who are already struggling in a failing economy.
But it’s too late to stop now, says Marshall, after $6.7 billion have already been spent, and because Nalcor is contractually obligated to provide electricity to Emera, which is building a $2 billion marine cable to Nova Scotia, for the next 35 years. Newfoundland, moreover, is counting on electricity from Muskrat Falls to replace its 500-megawatt thermal plant, in order to meet its renewable energy targets.
None of this should come as a surprise after decades of big dam building around the world has established a predictable pattern. A 2014 Oxford study of 245 large dams built in developing countries since 1934 found that large dams fail to provide benefits for local communities, drown countries in debt, and never recoup their construction costs. Average cost overruns were 90 percent, the study found. Even after more than half a century, dam budgets are as wrong as at any time in seventy years – and yet developers never seem to learn. Not even after admitting that damming Muskrat Falls was a mistake, that the project was just “too large,” for the province.
Although construction is years behind schedule, Nalcor still intends to proceed with Phase II of the Lower Churchill development, the 2,500-megawatt Gull Island project, which would be an even larger project, and involve far more flooding – 232 kilometers of reservoir – that is almost four times the size of the planned reservoir behind Muskrat Falls. But past mistakes do not seem to provide object lessons for dam developers, as the Oxford study has shown.
“It is the very inefficiency of these projects that makes them attractive,” says Sarah Chayes, a fellow with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The primary objective is to serve as a conduit for skimming money out of the government’s budget.” Selling power from Gull Island to the United States is Newfoundland’s sole mitigation plan for reducing the economic burden on Newfoundlanders of the Muskrat debacle. And because production costs per kilowatt hour decrease with every additional dam on a river (which is one reason the expansion of hydro-complexes seems to be never ending), Newfoundland will be tempted to throw good money after bad.
It is also true that the boreal forests, the biodiversity, and the viability of communities are all threatened by climate change. The project’s justification has been to replace Newfoundland’s dirty thermal electric plant and Nova Scotia’s coal plants with “clean” hydropower from Labrador. However, alternatives for replacing Newfoundland’s 500-megawatt Holyrood plant were never considered – conservation measures, for instance, which by some estimates could make up the balance, alone. Or an offshore wind farm (in a notoriously windy place), closer to home and appropriately scaled. These or other alternatives were not even considered, only because the cost of building Muskrat Falls was grossly underestimated.
The environmental community in the Northeastern United States is divided on the question of large hydro. New transmission lines proposed to import hydroelectricity from Canada to New England states are facing both opposition and support from environmentalists. Many environmental groups have chosen to be silent on the issue of large dams, as they must choose their battles and have prioritized fossil fuels. Boston Globe columnist David Roberts, in an op-ed titled “Reckoning with climate change will demand ugly tradeoffs from environmentalists – and everyone else,” is one who makes the case most forcefully for sacrificing rivers in the name of decarbonization, a process that will require a “mind-boggling amount of manufacturing, building, and retrofitting.” Environmentalists, Roberts argues, must be willing to give up their attachment to pristine mountain ridges or wild rivers. “It’s fine if an individual or group chooses to prioritize rivers in Quebec or the safety risks of existing nuclear power plants over the threat of climate change. I don’t personally agree with that ranking, but people are entitled to their own values and priorities. …But an individual or group should not do so while also proclaiming climate change an existential threat.”
“Some people, landscapes, and legitimately worthwhile priorities would suffer,” he writes. But who has the right to decide what people, and what landscapes will be called upon for sacrifice? That is the question at the heart of the issue, and it’s the voices of the land and river protectors, the ones who are asked to make the sacrifices for us so that we can continue to use energy, who insist that we address it.
“A just energy economy is not only where our energy is healthy and renewable, but also local,” says Clair Muller with the Toxics Action Center, a member of the North American Megadams Resistance Alliance, who thinks New England states should rely on energy sources close to home. “We know all too often that when dirty energy is out of sight, communities and ecosystems become sacrifice zones. This is how Appalachia was destroyed for its coal and how polluting power plants are most often found in low-income and communities of color. Besides conservation, there is no way to make energy without consequences. But we can ensure those choices are made holistically when the consequences are local and not externalized.”
And if we are going to gamble away our rivers in the name of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we should be sure that large hydro is not significantly contributing to climate change. “We should be using electricity that is carbon emission free and fully renewable, and these megadam projects are neither,” says Steve Crowley, the Energy Chair of the Vermont Sierra Club, also a member of the North American Megadams Resistance Aliance. “Expansive reservoirs affect carbon in two ways. First, they eliminate forest that was pulling CO2 out of the air. And then they create conditions that release carbon that’s been sequestering in soils for thousands of years. And the only way to consider these projects renewable is to completely ignore the elimination of that vast forest resource that is not growing back on any schedule. Beyond this, when you consider poisoning the fish, and the people who consume them, with methyl mercury, and disrupting the lives of indigenous communities, there’s no way this is the right thing to do. By using this megadam power, we are directly responsible for impacts that would be completely intolerable if they were in our backyard.”
It is hydropower’s green credentials that make it attractive to US markets, but those credentials may be undeserved. While methane and CO2 emissions from reservoirs have been studied (newer research suggests that methane emissions are higher and longer lasting than previously thought, though they are still far below emissions from fossil fuel burning), emissions from reservoirs alone do not account for the climate impact of dam building. What has not been studied is the impact on forests – not only the forests cleared for the creation of reservoirs, but the forests lost in the creation of transmission corridors. For example, 1,000 kilometers of transmission lines are under construction to transport power from Muskrat Falls to the eastern coast of Newfoundland, requiring clearcuts the width of two four-lane interstate highways side by side, and 500 kilometers of transmission for Hydro Quebec’s 1,500 MW Romaine project currently under construction. Each new dam built in a remote northern region will require new transmission corridors through intact boreal forest.
What may be the most significant climate impact of building large dams is the deforestation that results from the creation of new roads and other industrial infrastructure in areas that were previously inaccessible to logging. Global Forest Watch has identified that “over 80 percent of proposed and 90 percent of potential hydropower developments in Canada would occur in or within 5 kilometers of presently intact forest landscapes.” These intact forests serve a vital role in climate stability: North America’s boreal forest holds as much carbon as emissions from 26 years of burning fossil fuels at today’s global rate. Canada’s 1.4 billion acres of forest, containing the majority of the world’s peat land, must be protected, scientists warn, to avoid this dangerous release of greenhouse gases. Hydroelectric development is often the first intrusion into intact landscapes, opening up these previously inaccessible areas to mining, forestry, and other land use changes. We do not have the data on the impacts of new dam construction on forests lost from secondary activities, but we do know that Canada is the largest contributor to global deforestation in the world – and it is this context that we must keep in mind when we evaluate the greenhouse impacts of large dams.
Moreover, new research indicates that wild rivers, natural floodplains and wetlands, as well as native boreal forests, will be needed for climate resilience. Healthy wetlands and floodplains mitigate against flooding and store water, as do forests. Nutrients flowing from wild rivers help the oceans to absorb carbon. One new study shows that habitat restoration of rivers, forests, and wetlands could help us to keep global warming below 2 degrees. In other words, an already degraded biosphere cannot sustain additional assaults, particularly in a time of climate disruption, especially massive assaults that disrupt entire ecosystems.
Loss of biodiversity is also an existential threat. Riparian areas are the most diverse on earth, and it is dams that are responsible for the 80 percent decline of freshwater species since 1970 – the beginning of the era of big dam building around the world. In today’s already crowded world, new dam construction is planned or underway in precisely the most biodiverse and least disturbed places on earth, the very places that need urgent protection.
Years ago, when we campaigned against long-term import contracts with Hydro Quebec, in support of the Cree and the Innu, our position was that energy conservation was the best alternative. That should still, in my view, be the emphasis for the climate justice movement. Roberts envisions renewables covering every open surface, and transmission lines crisscrossing the land like a web. He doesn’t consider the climate impact of all this construction, and more importantly, he never asks, what do we need all this energy for? Do we need bitcoins, a technology that has already cancelled out all the gains we have made with renewable energy? It is not the climate that needs all this – the earth does not require all those solar panels. It is our energy-hungry way of life and our dependence on technology that require it. Would Roberts consider heated outdoor swimming pools in winter, or smart phones, or even 24/7 electricity, as “worthwhile priorities” that might have to suffer? What Roberts has failed to consider as an alternative to his either/or – climate disruption or dams and nukes – is to look at the problem from the demand side of the equation – to transform our society into one that is less materialist, less consumerist, less technologically dependent, and less affluent. To restructure economies so that they do not depend upon growth. This is a tall order – but no more so than Roberts’ own proposal. The adjustments required to transition to a low-energy-consuming society will be more psychological, social, and spiritual, than physical – and are therefore more achievable than a “mind boggling amount of manufacturing,” which will – there is no way around it – have a significant climate impact at the very moment we are precariously balanced at the tipping point.
There is no waterfall at Gull Island, but there are rapids, where the canyon walls tighten their grip, soaring upwards on either side like the sweep of a great pair of wings. This is where I watched our guide, Francis, steer our canoes one by one over the rapids, dancing over the boulders with extraordinary grace as the canoes jerked about in the froth like springy young colts. This is where, after climbing back into our canoes, we paddled down more light rapids, bouncing over the waves and navigating through boulders, the clouds casting shadows on the hills and the sunlight dappling the water. This is where I saw our guides crouched low behind a rock, and as we glided into an eddy, I heard Francis’ wife Elizabeth call softly, “Geese!” This is where I watched Elizabeth and her sister, later that night, pluck the feathers from the geese they caught, the plump limp birds laid out on a thick pillow of sphagnum moss and fir boughs, draped in candlelight.
I remember our last two days on the river, from Gull Island to Muskrat Falls, as perhaps the most beautiful of all. We paddled under an immense sky. There were long flat islands and sand bars, and the water was shallow and for a while it was calm. The river was broad and we could see the bright marbled clouds to the east and pillars of rain over the mountains to the west; dark purple storm clouds were moving from upriver pressing toward us, casting a giant shadow over us and bringing in fierce winds. Here the towering walls that had hemmed us in had been ground down to low rolling hills, and a new horizon had opened up, revealing a chain of mountains in the distance.
As we approached Spirit Mountain, the falls invisible below its feet, I saw our guides’ canoes pull ashore on a sandy crescent strewn with driftwood, as their ancestors had done for generations before them, the tiny figures moving over the jumble of river rocks to meet them. Who’s to say that one person’s culture – embedded in the landscape, reliant on current sunlight, exquisitely adapted to the particularities of place – is less important than the culture of another? Left undisturbed, theirs might have lasted forever.
Alexis Lathem received the publisher’s award from Canada’s Alternative Journal for her 2014 “Rage On Sweet Romaine,” on Hydro Quebec’ current project. She is a fellow at the Black Earth Institute, and author of the poetry collection Alphabet of Bones. Her last article for Toward Freedom was on Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation report on residential schools for aboriginal children (March, 2016).