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Story Publication logo December 9, 2019

Indigenous Activists Fight Expansion of Canadian Hydropower

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A Deadly Shade of Green.
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Canada wants to supply New England with cheap, "clean" hydropower. But the region's mega-dams carry...

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Erin Saunders, 35, at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Saunders was arrested protesting the construction of a local Canadian hydropower dam, which she says threatens her way of life. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.
Erin Saunders, 35, at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Saunders was arrested protesting the construction of a local Canadian hydropower dam, which she says threatens her way of life. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.

HAPPY VALLEY-GOOSE BAY, Labrador — 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, sitting in a modest apartment associated with a local social services organization. “I can still fight.”

Like her father, Saunders lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a town of 8,100 on the banks of the Churchill River. Upstream, a 5,428-megawatt hydroelectric plant called Churchill Falls has generated power for 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 lynchpin in a mutually beneficial cross-border arrangement; Canada has gained a major source of revenue, while Vermont and New Hampshire have gained a major source of reliable, renewable energy.   

But Saunders wants New England purchasers of Canadian hydropower 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.”

A primary concern for 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 occuring 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 for humans. 

That is of particular concern to those who, like Saunders, rely on hunting and fishing for a significant part of their diet. While Nalcor and the Inuit’s Nunatsiavut Government disagree with each other on the impact Muskrat Falls will have on local food sources, Saunders and others in her community deeply resent any poisoning of their food supply by state-owned Nalcor. 

Race against the clock

In late November, the United Nations released a report showing that, despite all the recent political momentum to combat 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 not on pace to meet their emission reduction commitments under the Paris Agreement.

Right now, both Vermont and New Hampshire have mandated 25% renewable energy portfolios by 2025, and both states are currently at about 20%, with imported Canadian hydroelectricity representing a significant chunk of that.

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 U.S. 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 of “resources that rely on fuel sources that restore themselves over short periods of time and do not diminish.”

But the EIA 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. 

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 emissions is vegetation that, once flooded, rots and releases stored carbon and methane into the atmosphere; while the worst offenders are in tropical regions, where emissions can actually exceed the amount produced by fossil fuels, the effect is felt everywhere.

Nalcor and its partner in the Churchill Falls project, Hydro-Quebec, point to research showing that, over a projected 100-year lifespan, 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 a dam built today may not have any benefit until 2040, according to a recent study by scientists at the Environmental Defense Fund. And that matters, because the delayed benefit does little to prevent some of the near-term impacts of climate change, which include exceeding tipping thresholds that are expected to trigger extinctions among many plants and animals.

“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, the study’s authors write.

In early dealings between Vermont and Canada, concerns about the environment and the well-being of indigenous people have sometimes, but not always, been an issue — in 1979, Vermont signed its first small energy contract with Quebec, and in 1983, Hydro-Quebec and state agencies crafted a larger deal, for 150 megawatts entering the state at Highgate. In 1994, widespread concerns about a proposed 500-megawatt deal caused Vermont regulators to specify that the power could not come from a proposed “Great Whale” hydroelectric project, which was opposed by the indigenous Cree of James Bay. As a result, the Great Whale project was canceled. 

But the emissions of Canada’s large scale hydroelectricity plants have little influence in more recent energy policy decisions in Vermont and New Hampshire.

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 Gov. Jim Douglas signed an Act Relating to Renewable Energy into law. Under that law, Vermont became 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 provides an advantage to 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,” Saunders said. “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 have been well-documented — broken families, widespread substance abuse, domestic violence and endemic poverty among them — in this area, Muskrat Falls dam has defined the issue for Saunder’s 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 surges of protests and arrests by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, mostly for trespassing.

Erin 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. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.
Erin 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. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.

In 2016, Saunders went to the Newfoundland and Labrador Provincial Courthouse in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, to show support for protesters 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.

“The 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 protesters 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.

“I sympathize with that, but I don’t think it’s our job to get involved,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Peter 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 window panes, that are collectively creating massive efficiency gains. 

In his paper, the Rockingham County Democrat 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. 

Currently, New Hampshire gets about 8% of its power from Canada’s dams, a number Somssich said would double to about 16% in a fully renewable future. Vermont, by contrast, gets 22% of its electricity from Canadian hydropower, and is shooting for 37% by 2050, under the state’s 2016 Comprehensive Energy Plan.

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.

Saunders shows a tattoo of an ulu, Inuit cutting tool, on her right hand with traditional Inuit tattoos on both wrists illuminated by a whale oil lamp at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.
Saunders shows a tattoo of an ulu, Inuit cutting tool, on her right hand with traditional Inuit tattoos on both wrists illuminated by a whale oil lamp at her apartment in the military base town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador. Image by Michael G. Seamans. Canada, 2019.

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.

“It’s unbelievable how much waste you see when you just walk around. It’s everywhere,” said Bob King, president of the Granite State Hydropower Association. “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 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 work to remove 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, even at small 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,” said Deen, a former Vermont state representative who chaired the House Fish, Wildlife and Natural Resources Committee. “These and other changing technologies offer the future, not lots of stupid little hydro facilities trashing our streams.”

But Deen, a Democrat from Westminster, did agree with King on one key point.

“The answer … is conservation,” he said. “I was just in Boston and NY 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 to the aboriginal residents of Labrador, there is only one renewable energy project that threatens to poison their food, and disrupt a way of life that has endured — sustainably — for centuries.

Dr. Michel Plante, a medical consultant for Hydro-Quebec (which currently exports electricity from Quebec to Vermont), 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.

After testing for mercury in actual hair samples of indigenous people before and after the introduction of a reservoir into their fishing waters, Plante said he’s found 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.

Plante said the perceptions of contaminated fish can be more harmful to public health than the mercury.

“We want people to eat more fish,” he said, “because of all of the health benefits that eating fish provides.”

But the aboriginal residents of Labrador are very 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 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?”

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