UN special envoy on human rights calls on federal government to review methylmercury mitigation efforts
David Maher · Published: Jun 07, 2019 at 9:15 p.m.
ST. JOHN’S, N.L.
The United Nations has called on the federal government to “prevent the release of methylmercury” at Muskrat Falls.
Baskut Tunach, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and wastes, was in Canada from May 24 to June 6, and issued a wide-ranging statement on Indigenous people and their treatment by public bodies in the country.
Muskrat Falls gets a specific mention by Tunach, who spoke with land and river protectors during his visit:
“Concerns were raised regarding the absence of meaningful consultation afforded to two affected First Nations, the risk of methylmercury releases contaminating traditional foods and impacting health, the unaddressed risk of dam failure and the flooding of sites containing toxic military waste,” wrote Tunach.
“It was alleged that the vast majority of the affected community would either suffer from extreme food insecurity or be forced to eat contaminated food if the dam is constructed without proper clearance of the reservoir. I urge the federal government to use its leverage as the largest investor in the project to review whether UNDRIP compatible procedures were followed for all affected Indigenous peoples, and to prevent the release of methylmercury.”
UNDRIP refers to the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Roberta Frampton Benefiel, of the Grand Riverkeepers, says the statement from the United Nations means a lot to those concerned about risks associated with methylmercury.
“My first thought: thank god, someone is finally listening. We wouldn’t have had to go to the United Nations if we had anyone in this territory representing us or anyone in St. John’s representing aboriginal concerns – or anyone in Ottawa, for that matter,” said Benefiel.
“For me, the methylmercury issue, it seems to government – both the federal and provincial – that it’s just the cost of doing business. To them, it’s like nothing.”
Methylmercury is the major source of naturally occurring mercury, but can be toxic if left to accumulate in the environment. In hydroelectric reservoirs, methylmercury is released by organic material left to rot underwater, particularly from submerged soil.
Benefiel says losing access to wild food downstream of Muskrat Falls, in the event of food consumption advisories, amounts to a cultural genocide.
“What are we doing to Indigenous people’s livelihoods? They get together and go out on the ice to fish for salmon and trout, they do that in the spring to get out on the ice for seal meat,” said Benefiel.
“What they’re doing is destroying a part of the culture. It’s like when the residential schools took the kids away from their parents and forced them to speak English instead of their own language. It’s a cultural genocide. Taking them off the food source that makes them who they are and who they’ve been for centuries is another form.”
In late October 2016, Premier and Labrador and Indigenous Affairs Minister Dwight Ball held a marathon meeting with Indigenous leaders that resulted in an agreement to appoint an independent experts advisory committee to provide oversight for the project, specifically the methylmercury issue.
In April 2018, the Independent Experts Advisory Committee gave four recommendations to the provincial government. The fourth point addressed methylmercury directly: “The IEAC recommends that Nalcor Energy undertake targeted removal of soil and capping of wetlands in the future reservoir area before impoundment.”
Only three of the four Indigenous groups agreed to the measure. The Nunatsiavut Government, Nunatukavut Community Council, Innu Nation, and affected municipalities agreed with capping wetlands in the area, while the Innu Nation disagreed on targeted removal of soil.
In a statement from the Office of the Premier, Ball says the government has been trying to arrange a meeting with Indigenous leaders to discuss soil removal and wetland capping, after weather and schedule issues thwarted earlier attempts at a meeting. The meeting will take place next week.
“With respect to progress to date, water monitoring has been in place for almost three years, and has shown that methylmercury levels have at no time represented a risk to public health. The current monitoring regime was agreed upon by all parties and applauded by the IEAC for its design. Since then, over 1,200 tests for methylmercury levels in the reservoir, downstream, and in Lake Melville have been conducted,” reads the statement.
“Government agrees with the Indigenous groups on the importance of continued monitoring.”
The Premier’s Office statement goes on to affirm the safety of the water and country food in the downstream area of Muskrat Falls.
“The IEAC also did valuable work in confirming that current practices relating to the consumption of country foods and water are safe,” reads the statement.
“As a condition of release from the environmental assessment process, the province required the production of a human health risk assessment by Nalcor. Upon acceptance, the province directed that compensation will be provided if consumption advisories are ever issued.”
The federal government is expected to speak on the matter on Monday.
Also on Monday, a protest in favour of mitigating methylmercury at Muskrat Falls will happen as the House of Assembly opens for the first time after the 2019 general election.