RIGOLET, LABRADOR — Karl Michelin woke at 6:30 a.m. and saw the remote coastal land outside his window — fresh white snow below, sharp blue skies above.
He knew that it was time to close up his camp for the winter on a clear day after the first snowfall.
But first, he had to care for Josie. Already, the toddler was a physical force, playing living room soccer with a balloon beneath the caribou horns mounted on the wall, or thunking a heavy steel hammer toothlessly against the exposed partition of a house addition.
This morning, Josie was calm and smiling. Michelin changed her diapers, prepared her bottle and dressed her for the day, before retrieving his rifle from the case in the kitchen.
Michelin hitched his boat to his truck, protected from the wind by clothes that his wife had crafted — a dickie from the fur of a fox he’d trapped, and mittens from the skin of seal and moose.
In this isolated Inuit community, 100 miles from the nearest town, each of the five dozen or so homes built on the hill are within a half-mile of the docks, where the fresh waters of Lake Melville mingle with the salty Atlantic.
The extent to which those waters could be poisoned by toxins associated with a new upstream hydropower project is a matter of fierce scientific and political debate between the Inuit and a massive government-backed corporation. Michelin and others, though, are worried about the deadly implications on their food supply and way of life.
As Michelin put the boat into the water, he barely glanced at the Northern Store, Rigolet’s sole source of groceries. There, a dozen eggs cost $4.49 in Canadian dollars ($3.45 U.S.); a pound of butter $8 ($6.16 U.S.); half a gallon of orange juice, $11.99 ($9.23); and a medium-sized ham, $56 ($43). The prices were particularly painful for the Nunatsiavut Inuit, who have a median annual income of just $23,211 Canadian dollars ($17,872 U.S.).
The prices reflect the logistical realities of a supply chain that includes no roads into or out of town — just boats, Twin Otter planes and, when the ice freezes, dogsleds and snowmobiles.
Rigolet is one of five Inuit communities under the Nunatsiavut Government; the rate of food insecurity for its 2,600 people is 61%.
The ongoing struggle for Inuit children to eat seems completely unrelated to New England’s renewable energy goals. But in fact, every time a New Englander flicks on a light switch, a connection between indigenous food woes and New England’s energy needs is illuminated.
The increasing pressure for renewable power in the Northeast gives Canada’s state-owned hydropower industry an incentive to ramp up supply and add to its robust network of dams and transmission lines.
Part of that demand is reflected in the proposed New England Clean Energy Connect project, known as NECEC, a $950 million power line that would carry up to 1,200 megawatts of hydropower from Canada to Massachusetts. The route would cut across the heart of northwestern Maine, by way of a route that includes 50 miles of North Woods where some people live largely self-sufficiently in the wilderness.
Nowhere is the impact of the demand for renewable power felt more intimately than at the beginning of the chain in the far north.
When land adjacent to a wild river is flooded to create a hydroelectric reservoir, one unwelcome side effect is an increase in the amount of methylmercury, a toxin, which travels downstream. The toxin then accumulates in the bodies of animals that indigenous populations, such as the Inuit of Rigolet, have hunted and fished for thousands of years.
Though the NECEC is being built to carry power from Hydro-Quebec, a company that is not directly involved with the dam most worrisome for Michelin over the past decade, the power line represents one more link in the export-leaning infrastructure that makes building large-scale dams profitable. Rigolet’s experiences are typical of the friction that projects across Canada create between the hydropower industry and indigenous peoples.
Experts disagree on whether the methylmercury impact will be significant in Rigolet. But Charlotte Wolfrey, who in 2010 was first elected as the AngajukKâk (a position like mayor) of the Inuit community, says she worries that the methylmercury will prevent her from eating wild-caught foods, and she wants New Englanders to know that.
“I would tell them that it’s not as green as it’s cut out to be,” said Wolfrey. “That they’re really affecting our lifestyle. They’re affecting our culture, they’re affecting our traditions.”
INTO ALTERED WATERS
Michelin, seemingly unbothered by the cutting wind, directed his boat into Hamilton Inlet, a subarctic fjord estuary.
The Inuit once called this body of water Ivucktoke, which roughly translates as “walrus-hunting place.” The modern name comes from Admiral Charles Hamilton, a British naval officer.
The loss of place names, and common usage of the language that once supported them, is just one example of how the Inuit identity has been undermined by European colonization. The conspicuous absence of walrus — a casualty of commercial hunting operations from the early 1900s — is another.
In more recent times, however, the impacts of colonization have been more far-reaching, reshaping the entire ecosystem the Inuit inhabit.
In 1970, corporations owned by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador and by the province of Quebec partnered to build the Churchill Falls Generating Station, capable of producing 5,428 megawatts of electricity. Even today, it is the second-largest hydro plant in Canada and 10th-largest in the world.
The Churchill River is the largest source of water flowing into Lake Melville, which, as it approaches the ocean via the Hamilton Inlet, becomes the largest watershed in Labrador, draining 45% of Labrador’s fresh waters into the sea near Rigolet.
The Churchill Falls dam has altered the water flow, as demonstrated by a recent analysis of core samples throughout Lake Melville, which found a dramatic 1970 shift in how sediments and organic carbon are distributed in the ecosystem. Other studies have found changes in Melville’s salinity, plankton, ice cover and light penetration, all signaling fundamental changes at the base of the food web.
In a land where imported food supplies can cost two to three times as much compared with prices elsewhere in the Northeast, the Inuit are much more heavily reliant on the local food web than most people.
Michelin knows the waters as well as the roads of tiny Rigolet.
“There’s less current coming out from that big river any more,” he said. “There’s a lot of animals that aren’t going to want to come into this bay anymore. That’s what happened to the salmon.”
Within 20 minutes, he piloted to a large island that hosted his Aullâvik, a traditional camp. Most Rigolet families maintain solitary camps to get away from the rigors of societal living. In keeping with Inuit traditions about communal ownership of land, Inuit can legally build Aullâsimavet (the plural) without buying the lot. Michelin only needed to go through the formality of applying to the Nunatsiavut Government.
Following the cue provided by that first glance out his window, he set about buttoning up his camp, as he did every year on the first blue-skied day following the region’s first serious snowfall.
He hauled grapples, used to anchor scallop nets, out of the water, and gathered stray lumber from the yard. Everything went inside the cabin, along with a small portable smoker, a dry box for fish, propane hoses and a couple armfuls of firewood, which would go to make the first fire or two of 2020.
Task complete, he was soon back on the water. But instead of heading home, he directed the small boat northeast, toward the open ocean.
DWINDLING FOOD SUPPLY
Michelin, and virtually every other Inuit in Rigolet, has spent the last decade voicing opposition to Muskrat Falls, another hydroelectricity project. Muskrat Falls is located lower on the Churchill River and was flooded a few months ago by Nalcor, a company owned by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Nalcor is a partner with Hydro-Quebec on Churchill Falls, one of 63 generating facilities that support Hydro-Quebec’s efforts to bolster sales in New England (as with the NECEC).
With Quebec currently flush with its own generating capacity, Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls production will be sent east, toward Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
“To monetize the value of the surplus power, Nalcor Energy has partnered with Emera, a publicly traded entity based in Nova Scotia which is the parent company of Nova Scotia Power, Bangor Hydro-Electric and Maine and Maritimes,” according to an impacts and benefits agreement between Nalcor and the Innu Nation, another First Nations group in the region.
One hallmark of the modern electricity grid is its dilution of supply and demand — rather than tying a specific generator to a specific customer, energy companies can pull from any source to meet any need. That system bolsters efficiency and reliability, which are important to customers, but it also means that it can be difficult to assess the responsibility that any one contract bears for the environmental impacts of adding new capacity, such as Muskrat Falls.
Opponents of Muskrat Falls have toured New England to speak against Canadian hydropower, in the belief that the general demand of the U.S. market, and projects like the NECEC, will drive continued development on Canada’s waterways.
Karen O’Neill, a spokeswoman for Nalcor, said the Muskrat Falls project has been the subject of misinformation repeatedly circulated in the media. She said the project is an environmental boon to the world, reducing greenhouse gases with as little local environmental disturbance as possible.
“That’s an extremely low footprint from a hydro facility,” she said.
The agreement with the Innu came after a lengthy negotiation. The Innu used their potential support of the Muskrat Falls project as leverage to extract a compensatory package for the impacts of the Muskrat Falls project and the Upper Churchill Falls project (for which they were never consulted in the 1960s). The deal includes multi-million dollar annual payments to the two local Innu communities, which total roughly 2,200 residents.
O’Neill said Nalcor’s agreement with the Innu was based on their ownership of the Muskrat Falls site, a claim recognized by the Canadian Government.
“It was built on land claimed by Innu Nation,” said O’Neill. “We have an impacts and benefits agreement with them. The construction of this, and even the operation of it, is covered in the agreement.”
Members of the Innu communities, which are in the midst of what Innu Chief Eugene Hart called a suicide crisis, did not respond to requests for interviews.
The Inuit, who say they are suffering downstream effects of the dam, have no such land claim.
In the face of ongoing colonization and cultural erosion, the one aspect of Inuit culture that Rigolet residents have clung to most tightly is eating off the land. They fish for brook trout and salmon, hunt moose and caribou, and gather bakeapples, known more commonly in the United States as cloudberries.
Rigolet gets most of its food from the wild, a sustainable and cost-effective practice that allows them to eat well despite high prices in the Northern Store.
A variety of factors have removed species, one by one, from the portfolio of foods that the Inuit have been able to rely on. Whales and walrus are a thing of the past, as are some fish and waterfowl species. In 2013, the Inuit were deeply saddened when crashing herd numbers triggered a moratorium on hunting caribou, a traditional staple, and access to other animals is strictly limited — Rigolet is allowed a total of four moose.
Out on the water, Michelin soon spied what he was looking for — in the distance, tiny black lumps winking in and out on the surface of the ocean.
The reduced diversity of the food supply has made the Inuit heavily dependent on their most reliable food source: seal.
Michelin let the boat drift freely and put his rifle — a Ruger .223, which he’d kept free of rust for the last 25 or more years — to his shoulder.
TAKING THE SHOT
The boat bobbed up and down in the waves. So did the black lumps — jar seals, a hundred or more of them.
Michelin’s first shot slammed into the water. A miss.
Michelin can be a harsh critic of himself. As a teenager, missed shots were common, but by now, he’d done this too many times to waste a bullet.
“It should be one shot, getting one seal,” he said.
It came down to timing. The trick, he later said, is to pull the trigger as the boat rises smoothly toward its maximum height.
Jar seals, also known as ringed seals for the leopard-like markings on the pelt, are 4 or 5 feet long, smaller than Harp seals, but tastier. Michelin drew on a juvenile.
The second shot found its mark, but Michelin knew he would never get his hands on the meat. The seal slid beneath the waves, out of reach.
“The way I hit it, air must have got into the head and sank it,” he said.
The other seals were remarkably undisturbed by the death in their ranks. As long as he kept his distance with the boat, Michelin said, they would fail to recognize the threat.
Ringed seal populations used to be pressured by commercial sealing operations, but concerns about sustainability and animal rights resulted in most hunts being banned and a collapse in global seal-product markets. With only Inuit subsistence hunting still allowed in Canada, populations have flourished.
Michelin’s third shot went home, and soon, he was hauling the lower half of the seal into the boat, letting its head drain into the ocean as he piloted his boat to shore. He chose a level spot, with a natural workbench — seaweed-strewn rocks to prevent the seal from washing out into the ocean and to keep the meat free of dirt or sand. Using a boning knife to make sure, practiced cuts, Michelin reduced the animal to its edible parts, washing them in the saltwater as he went.
The ribs, the heart, the liver and the blubber-laden muscles were all neatly separated and put into a plastic pail. Whatever he didn’t eat immediately would wind up in a freezer that, at any given time, held about a three-month food supply for his family. The previous night, he’d eaten a baked goose that he shot in April.
Michelin headed home. Though the seal hunt (one of about 10 he would undertake in an average year) had been successful, he still had a nagging thread of doubt, one that had been persistently crowding the edges of his thoughts ever since he learned about another impact of the far-off hydroelectricity projects: They were poisoning the seals.
A CHAIN REACTION
When land is flooded, naturally occurring mercury that is locked up in organic material is released into the environment, where it can be taken up by microscopic bacteria and transformed into methylmercury.
“The result is an increase in fish mercury levels for a period ranging from 10 to 35 years, depending on the fish species and reservoir characteristics,” says Hydro-Quebec, co-owner of Churchill Falls, on its website.
The methylmercury is then passed up along the food chain, getting more concentrated, and therefore more potent, with every step.
As methylmercury accumulates in the bodies of larger animals, it can damage the brain and spinal cord, causing a variety of serious health impacts.
But there is disagreement about how much methylmercury is safe.
Because the effects are magnified on developing neurological systems, children, mothers-to-be and nursing mothers are particularly warned to avoid mercury-laden foods like tuna and smelt.
Even small amounts of mercury in maternal mothers can negatively impact the IQ scores of their infants, and every bump in mercury levels corresponds to an increased chance of mental retardation, according to a 2010 study on exposure levels by researchers at Yale University and Austria’s University for Health Sciences, Medical Informatics and Technology. That study advocates for a zero-tolerance policy.
“Acute or chronic mercury exposure can cause adverse effects during any period of development,” they wrote. “Mercury is a highly toxic element; there is no known safe level of exposure. Ideally, neither children nor adults should have any mercury in their bodies because it provides no physiological benefit.”
The US. Environmental Protection Agency says that, in order to avoid health effects, an individual should eat no more than 0.1 ug/kg of bodyweight of methylmercury each day, which works out to one part per 10 billion. Canadian health guidelines are more lenient, at 0.2 ug/kg.
A Harvard University study backed by the Nunatsiavut Government found that the Inuit of Lake Melville, who rely so heavily on wild-caught food, already have roughly twice as much methylmercury in their systems than the Canadian population as a whole.
The source of that mercury is, for the most part, the food they hunt and fish with some of the biggest culprits being salmon, cod, trout, ducks and seals. The study found that Muskrat Falls will further increase local mercury levels.
“Rigolet residents are at higher risk of increased mercury exposures due to flooding because of their greater reliance on locally caught food. Under (the worse of two possible scenarios), up to 46% of residents exceed the Health Canada guideline for adults and 66% of residents are above the U.S. EPA reference dose,” wrote the researchers.
O’Neill said the Nunatsiavut-supported study drew different conclusions than Nalcor’s own environmental assessment.
“Our prediction is that there won’t be any changes,” O’Neill said. “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.”
In response to methylmercury fears, Nalcor is monitoring levels not only in fish, but in seals, osprey and river otters in the Churchill. It also tests soil and water samples and releases its data to public health agencies, so that, if needed, advisories can go out to restrict consumption of different species of fish.
Critics say the soil and water tests are not being done in the right places, as indicated in the Harvard study, to show the effects.
“The opinions will change based on who is doing it,” said O’Neill.
Dr. Michel Plante, a medical consultant for Hydro-Quebec, said Harvard’s concerns about Labrador may be overblown, based on the relationship between reservoirs and indigenous populations that has unfolded over decades in Quebec.
“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 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.”
AGAINST THE SEAL
Hydropower supporters say any collateral damage from damming projects is an acceptable price to combat climate change.
O’Neill said Muskrat Falls is being built to provide power to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, where it will displace an existing fossil fuel plant and a coal plant.
The surplus, she said, “will be marketed and sold to jurisdictions outside our province.”
“This includes eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. We are currently selling our surplus power from Churchill Falls into these markets today.”
Nalcor has done preliminary work on another project, a massive 2,250-megawatt generator at Gull Island, also on the Churchill River. If the market will support it — and the energy decisions of New England will be a part of the equation — the chances of it being built increase.
But the precise benefits of large-scale dams to global greenhouse emissions are not well-defined. Some studies, cited by Hydro-Quebec, show that hydropower generation emits about 3% of the greenhouse gases of natural gas. But other studies show that the carbon and methane emissions of rotting vegetation severely undercut the benefits, with some suggesting that certain dams (mostly in tropical and temperate regions) are even worse than fossil fuels.
Whether dams confer an advantage in the global battle against climate change, Michelin wants New Englanders to understand large scale hydropower has significant local impacts.
“In order for you to get that kind of power, we had to sacrifice our way of life in a lot of ways,” he said.
Within the Inuit culture, an Inuk’s need for seal meat is almost mythic. Many say that a period of abstinence results in deep cravings that nothing else can satisfy.
Nutrition scientists have found that the particular ways Inuit store and consume seal meat unlock greater nutritional benefits, such as carbohydrates and vitamins A, C and D. Though the Inuit prepare their seal meat in a variety of ways — including, for some, frozen or raw — many think the tastiest is fried. Whenever he gets the thin strips of rich, black meat topped by marshmallow-sized cubes of fat sizzling in his frying pan, Michelin adds chopped onions from the Northern Store.
Traditional Inuit stories speak of a partnership between the seals and humans, but if health officials find that the seal are too contaminated with mercury to eat, Michelin says that longstanding partnership could be dissolved.
“It might turn me against the seal,” he said.
O’Neill said that Nalcor has made an effort to address concerns of the Inuit and a third First Nations group in the area, the NunatuKavut, in part through their program to monitor methylmercury levels in the water, the animals, and the Inuit themselves.
“Innu Nation, Nunatsiavut and NunatuKavut, they don’t see eye to eye. They don’t agree on the potential impacts,” said O’Neill. “They don’t agree on the mercury. … No one has any consensus on what should be done.”
Even if Michelin doesn’t give up on seal, the same might not be true for little Josie, who may grow up in a world in which country foods are more difficult to access.
As Michelin headed back across the waters to Rigolet, the bucket of seal meat rested in the bottom of the boat as it bounced across the water. He was headed back to the dock, back to his home. He carried the day’s bounty to his wife, and a little girl who he hoped would grow up healthy, strong and equipped to carry the Inuit forward into an uncertain future.
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