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Native population protests, faces arrests in their stand against Canadian hydropower (Part 2 of 2)

  • Erin Saunders, 35, at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, on Nov. 8, 2019. Saunders, daughter of Alex Saunders, feels a deep connection to her First Nations heritage and gets most of her food through traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices. Saunders was arrested protesting the construction of a local Canadian hydropower dam, which she says threatens her way of life. She asks New England energy policymakers to consider the upstream effects of Canadian hydro before they buy it. (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting - Michael G. Seamans) Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting photographs — Michael G. Seamans

  • The Muskrat Falls Dam at the North Spur on Nov. 17, 2019. (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting - Michael G. Seamans)

  • Erin Saunders, 35, at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, on Nov. 8, 2019. Saunders, daughter of Alex Saunders, feels a deep connection to her First Nations heritage, and gets most of her food through traditional hunting, fishing and gathering practices. Saunders was arrested protesting the construction of a local Canadian hydropower dam, which she says threatens her way of life. She asks New England energy policymakers to consider the upstream effects of Canadian hydro before they buy it. (Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting - Michael G. Seamans) Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting — Michael G. Seamans

For the Valley News
Published: 12/7/2019 10:27:17 PM
Modified: 12/7/2019 10:39:14 PM

This series was supported by the Pulitzer Center. For Part 1, click here.

Though her father says it’s sometimes better for First Nations people to adapt to the widespread changes sweeping their region, Erin Saunders hasn’t given up on pushing back against the rampant effects of colonization.

“I’m young,” the 35-year-old mother of two said last month, sitting in a modest apartment associated with a social services organization. “I can still fight.”

Like her father, Saunders lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 8,100 that lies on the banks of the Churchill River in Labrador.

Upstream, a 5,428-megawatt hydroelectric plant called Churchill Falls has generated power that serves New England for years; a second, 824-megawatt plant called Muskrat Falls is expected to come online next year, and a third, 2,500-megawatt plant called Gull Island is on the drawing board for Nalcor, an energy company owned by the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Hydropower has been the linchpin in a mutually beneficial arrangement: Canada has gained a major source of revenue, while the Twin States have gained a major source of reliable, renewable energy.

But Saunders wants New Englanders to understand that, while large-scale Canadian hydroelectricity is renewable, it’s not green.

“It’s not good for our environment,” she said. “For us, everything is at stake.”

One of the primary concerns of Saunders, and for many in the watershed that lies downstream from Churchill Falls, is the release of methylmercury into the environment. When land is flooded, the water brings naturally occurring mercury from the soil into contact with water-borne bacteria that transform it into the neurotoxin methylmercury. The methylmercury is absorbed by microscopic plankton, and then is increasingly concentrated as it passes up the food chain, eventually turning fish, seals and waterfowl into potential health risks.

Nalcor and the Nunatsiavut Government agree that the Muskrat Falls reservoir will add methylmercury to the local environment. But that’s where the agreement ends.

Based on studies that it has commissioned from the consulting firm Wood Environment and Infrastructure Solutions, Nalcor says the actual impact on area residents will be slim to none.

“Our prediction is that there won’t be any changes,” said Karen O’Neill, a spokeswoman for Nalcor, the state-owned company that built Muskrat Falls. “We project people will be able to continue with country foods without an impact. There could be some fish species that the guidelines could change. But we haven’t seen that yet. What we’re predicting is that there will not be an impact.”

But the Nunatsiavut Government points instead to the very different predictions that have come from years of area studies conducted by a team of Harvard University researchers.

One of those studies designed models that predicted the impact on Rigolet, an Inuit community on Lake Melville, which receives water from the Churchill River, and empties into the Labrador Sea. The study found that two-thirds of Rigolet residents would see their mercury levels pushed above the reference dose of the U.S. EPA.

Dr. Michel Plante, a medical consultant for Hydro-Quebec, which exports electricity from Quebec to New England, said that decades of research on the relationship between reservoirs and indigenous populations in Quebec have shown that the concerns about human health impacts in Labrador are overestimated by the Harvard researchers.

“If you read the study by Harvard, it’s really alarmist,” he said.

Plante said that previous models by other universities have shown a dramatic gap between predicted, and actual, mercury levels in heavy consumers of fish.

“We found a fivefold difference,” he said.

Part of the reason, Plante said, is that models assume that all of the mercury that is consumed is retained by the body, but that in fact, roughly half of it is not absorbed, and passes harmlessly through the system.

But those who, like Saunders, already rely on hunting and fishing for a significant part of their diet, expressed deep resentment at the introduction of any amount of poison into their food supply.

Race against the clock

In late November, the United Nations released a report showing that, despite all the recent political momentum behind combating climate change, global emissions have increased by 2% over the last decade, and several of the world’s most robust economies — including the United States and Canada — are off-target to meet their emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement, a 2016 United Nations-led effort to limit human contributions to climate change. Last month, the Trump administration served formal notice that it is withdrawing from the agreement.

Right now, both Vermont and New Hampshire have established renewable energy goals, with imported Canadian hydroelectricity already representing a significant chunk of the power supply, especially in Vermont.

Regional energy industry experts expect Canadian hydro to play an even larger role in the future, as Vermont pushes to attain 90% renewable by 2050, and other states also seek to meet ambitious commitments.

However, all renewable energy is not equal, according to the United States Energy Information Administration, which notes that “some renewable energy technologies can have an impact on the environment.”

Large-scale hydroelectricity is renewable by the EIA’s definition, which includes “resources that rely on fuel sources that restore themselves over short periods of time and do not diminish.”

But the United States has a different standard for “green power,” which must be renewable, but also “provide the highest environmental benefit.” Solar, wind and geothermal projects are green — but the hydroelectricity that New England imports from Canada is not, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

One downside of hydroelectricity projects that rely on impounded water — such as Churchill Falls and Muskrat Falls — is that they produce greenhouse gases, though the amount is in dispute, and likely differs significantly by dam.

The principal driver of the emissions is vegetation that, once flooded, rots and releases stored carbon and methane into the atmosphere; the worst offenders are in tropical regions, where emissions can actually exceed the amount produced by fossil fuels, according to various researchers, including one that was produced jointly by several universities and published in September in the journal Nature. But dam reservoirs everywhere release some amount of emissions.

Nalcor and its partner in the Churchill Falls project, Hydro-Quebec, point to research showing that, over a projected 100-year life span, some of their dams have just a tiny percentage of the emissions associated with the equivalent power produced by natural gas.

But most of a dam’s emissions happen over the first 20 years of its life, which means that dams built in the near future may not realize those kinds of reductions, according to a recently released study by environmental scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund.

“If minimizing climate impacts are not a priority in the design and construction of new hydropower facilities, it could lead to limited or even no climate benefits” as compared to fossil fuels, they wrote.

But the emissions of Canada’s large scale hydroelectricity plants have little influence in Twin State policy decisions.

Jared Duval is the executive director of the Energy Action Network of Vermont, a nonprofit tasked with tracking Vermont’s progress toward achieving 90% renewable energy by 2050, and translating the data into an accessible format for stakeholders and the public.

Of the state’s three energy sectors — home heating, transportation, and electricity — the most successful by far is electricity, the majority of which is renewable.

That success was made possible in 2010, when then-Gov. Jim Douglas signed An Act Relating to Renewable Energy. At the time, the law made Vermont the only state in the nation to define Canadian hydropower as renewable energy, under the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

“Of our 63% total renewable electricity generation, almost half of it comes from Hydro-Quebec,” Duval said, with most of the balance coming from other hydroelectricity sources. “The vast, vast majority of Vermont’s renewable electricity comes from hydro.”

Any emissions that the dams generate north of the border have no weight in the accounting system Vermont uses to measure its carbon footprint.

“The state’s official emissions inventory is looking at emissions from the end use,” Duval said.

That accounting system advantages some energy sources and penalizes others. Among other things, it equalizes wind, solar and hydro, even though each has different impacts on the environment and the climate.

Duval said Vermont and other states in New England use that method because it lines up with the United Nations’ efforts to count global emissions in a way that a cradle-to-grave system would not.

“If Vermont starts counting fracking in Canada, and Canada is also counting it in their development resources, it is being double-counted,” he said.

Power struggle

As part of maintaining her heritage, Saunders has decorated her body with indigenous-themed tattoos and porcupine earrings, takes Inuktituk language classes, and uses traditional tools like the ulu, a curved blade on a stout handle, and the kullik, a seal-oil lantern-shaped from stone.

But nothing connects her to her heritage like time spent with her father in traditional food-procurement practices — hunting seals, fishing for salmon or gathering mannet (eggs) from shorebirds and bakeapple berries, known in other cultures as cloudberries.

“I don’t like the store-bought,” said Saunders. “It’s not a summer, not to go and harvest our food.”

While the negative effects of colonization and forced acculturation on the region’s indigenous populations in this area have been well-documented — broken families, widespread substance abuse, domestic violence and endemic poverty among them — Muskrat Falls dam has defined the issue for Saunders’ generation.

Beginning around 2011, as it became clear that the Muskrat Falls proposal had momentum in the halls of government, Labradorians in the Churchill River watershed began to speak out against it.

Over years of public debates and revelations about the project, what began as a handful of intermittent sign-wavers became a more-or-less permanent source of civil unrest. Hundreds of families gathered to march or perform traditional drumming ceremonies on the wooded land that was slated to be flooded.

After construction commenced, the locals established a permanent protest camp and began using their bodies to block the flow of vehicles coming in and out of the Muskrat Falls site.

Soon, there were countervailing waves of protests, and arrests by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, mostly for trespassing.

In 2016, Saunders went to the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay to show support for protestors who had been charged with trespassing on Nalcor’s construction site.

“I was in the hallway,” she said, “when this one sheriff grabbed me by the arm. I didn’t know what was happening.”

That’s when Saunders learned that she, too, was being charged for her role in the protest.

“They took me and pushed me through the doorway. They told me I was arrested, and put me with my hands against the wall.”

Within minutes, she found herself surrounded by concrete walls and steel bars, waiting to be transported to a more secure facility, pending an arraignment for trespassing.

“I knew at the time, it was wrong in their eyes,” she said. “But I see it through native eyes.”

Eventually, under the threat of criminal penalties, Saunders signed an agreement not to go within 1 kilometer of the construction site.

Most of the arrested protestors signed similar agreements, but others refused, and were shackled and flown to Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, in Newfoundland.

In an effort to call attention to their treatment by the justice system, some elders refused to eat; the protests have continued, and sometimes involve travel to speak in New England.

Though the energy produced by the Muskrat Falls project will mostly go to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, it will also include transmission lines to Churchill Falls, and generally bolster an infrastructure designed to serve New England.

And despite the social unrest associated with Canadian hydropower, it figures in the future plans of policymakers in New Hampshire, such as state Rep. Peter Somssich, a Portsmouth Democrat and member of the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee who holds a doctorate in physics and worked in the energy industry for 32 years.

“I sympathize with (the protests), but I don’t think it’s our job to get involved,” said Somssich, who wrote a 2018 white paper outlining a path for New Hampshire to achieve 100% renewable energy.

Somssich’s paper is crackling with the promise of new technologies — he cites zero-emission cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells in California, a planned offshore wind project in England that would also produce hydrogen, and hundreds of small inventions, like LED lights and super-insulated windowpanes, that are collectively creating massive efficiency gains.

In the paper, Somssich acknowledged the downsides of large-scale hydro, writing that “we recognize there are large social and environmental costs associated with both generating Canadian hydropower and transmitting it to New England.”

But ultimately, Somssich said that his first duty is to the people of New Hampshire, who have a real need to find renewable energy that is reliable and cost-effective.

“I say, to the First Nations people up in Canada, I say ‘go fight that. It’s your right to stop it if it is harmful,’” he said. “I think they should fight it. But it’s not my fight. I’m not a citizen of Canada, so I can’t be fighting elsewhere in the world.”

Somssich says his first choice to supply New Hampshire’s energy needs would be wind power, but Canadian hydropower is a logical second choice.

Thanks in part to dams along the Connecticut River, New Hampshire gets about 8% of its power from large-scale hydro dams, Somssich said, and that could double to about 16% in a fully renewable future.

Though Somssich gives Gov. Chris Sununu credit for showing interest in an off-shore wind project earlier this year, he is generally critical of New Hampshire’s lack of renewable energy ambitions, relative to neighboring New England states.

“We have set very timid goals, and they haven’t changed,” Somssich said.

Somssich said New Hampshire is losing ground to Vermont in attracting solar and wind companies, and in giving utility companies, like Eversource, the flexibility to be more creative in pursuing renewable energy solutions.

He credited Vermont’s Green Mountain Power with aggressively chasing opportunities to provide power from a variety of sources to its customers.

GMP, meanwhile says its renewable energy purchases (about 22% of which is Canadian hydropower) are driven by its status as a “B Corporation,” a corporate structure that includes a legal mandate to weigh impacts to their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment.

“We use energy as a force for good and that’s part of the reason GMP is committed to having a 100% carbon-free energy supply by 2025 and 100% renewable by 2030, and we’re getting there with a growing mix of local renewables,” said Kristin Kelly, a GMP spokeswoman. “This is decades ahead of state mandates and other utilities of our size around the country, and it is an important action to take in the fight against climate change.”

Kelly said the proportion of imported Canadian hydro used by GMP has declined steadily over the past several years, and that the company is trying to strike the right balance between large hydro, small hydro, solar and wind, while also maintaining a reliable power supply throughout the year.

“All energy sources have different characteristics and we’ve worked to find a balanced approach that serves customers well with safe reliable power,” she said.

Conservation still king

When he credited energy efficiency technologies, Somssich sounded a theme that was common to experts discussing solutions to New England’s energy struggles, including Bob King, president of the Granite State Hydropower Association

“It’s unbelievable, how much waste you see when you just walk around. It’s everywhere,” King said in a recent interview. “I don’t think every house needs three or four TVs, always plugged in, always warm. The parking lots at the Kohl’s, and the car dealerships, do they really need 50 lights on all night? That’s just not sustainable.”

King, who lives in Keene, said there’s a big difference between the large dams on Churchill River, and the dams operated by most members of the GSHA.

“Obviously, the environmental impact of small hydropower is nonexistent, when you talk about a New England dam versus a giant new dam the size of Manhattan built in the Canadian wilderness,” he said.

King is part owner of Sugar River Power, LLC, which owns a dam in Claremont.

That dam, which is located between other dams on the Sugar River, diverts most of the river flow into a 750-foot stretch of pipe equipped with turbines that generate 1.4 megawatts of power, enough to power 1,500 homes.

The environmental impact is lessened, he said, by keeping 40 cubic feet of water per second running along the natural riverbed.

But those who are advocating for removal of the 1,000 or so dams in the Connecticut River watershed say small dams aren’t worth their impacts, either.

David Deen, a board member of the Connecticut River Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited and an honorary trustee of the Connecticut River Conservancy, said that, at dam sites, sediment builds up and buries stream bottom habitat, impounded water heats up, and the physical barriers can impede the natural migration habits of fish and macroinvertebrates like insects and crayfish.

“There is simply not enough power, even in aggregate, to supplement the grid,” Deen said. “These and other changing technologies offer the future, not lots of stupid little hydro facilities trashing our streams.”

But Deen, a former chairman of the Vermont House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources, agreed with King on one key point.

“The answer ... is conservation,” he said. “I was just in Boston and New York and the (wasted) nighttime lighting in mostly vacant buildings is stupendous.”

Deen, Somssich, King and Duval each said that, though Canadian hydro has downsides, there are no perfect solutions to a world facing a climate crisis.

“It’s not enough to point out the negative implications of our current energy use,” said Duval. “Everybody knows there are costs to every energy source. I think the responsibility is to say, ‘What is the alternative, and how does it stack up to the current resource?’ ”

But the aboriginal residents of Labrador are most concerned about maintaining a way of life that has endured — sustainably — for centuries, without having their food supply tainted.

Erin Saunders says that, if the impact from Muskrat Falls is as severe as is predicted by the Nunatsiavut Government, her 4-year-old daughter may never know what it’s like to subsist from the land.

“It’s a cultural genocide. It will wipe out my race,” she said. “How can I hold them accountable, if I have these toxins in me? Who’s holding them accountable?”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at

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