Why We Reject Canadian Hydro

The former Grandes Chutes on the Romaine River. Photo: A. Lathem

Importing electricity from Quebec and Labrador is not the solution to the energy needs of northeastern states.

Energy from mega dams in Quebec and Labrador is increasingly attractive to states in the northeast United States as a low carbon alternative to fossil fuels or nuclear power. However, large dams are catastrophically destructive for ecosystems and for communities, especially Indigenous peoples. While it is argued that these dams are “already built,” both Hydro Quebec and Newfoundland/Labrador’s Nalcor Energy are in the midst of a construction boom, with mega projects underway on the Romaine and Churchill Rivers, and more dams in the planning stages. The justification for this construction, in a region with a glut of hydropower, is to increase exports to the United States.

This is what has happened to the Grandes Chutes.

Mega dams are not merely “imperfect” but are unacceptably destructive.

Over a half a century, Hydro Quebec has flooded an area the size of the state of Vermont (and that does not include the flooding associated with the Churchill Falls project in Labrador, which flooded an area the size of New Brunswick), diverted and dammed some of North America’s last big wild rivers, many of them salmon rivers, and destroyed vast swaths of boreal forest; it has altered the homelands of Indigenous peoples beyond recognition, destroyed their sources of wild foods, the rivers they used as highways, their burial grounds and cultural sites.

This is not merely a matter of history – Hydro Quebec is building dams on the Romaine River, one of the last Atlantic salmon rivers in North America, as we speak.

Members of the Inuit, Metis, Innu, and Euro-Canadian communities have been protesting the Muskrat Falls megaproject for many years. Photo: Briarpatch Magazine.

Methylmercury Poisons Wild Foods

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 – requiring communities to abandon the wild foods they have relied upon for millennia, or to risk the harmful effects of mercury poisoning. Harvard researcher Elsie Sunderland has forecast “unacceptably high” levels of methylmerucry contamination from the Muskrat Falls mega-project for communities that rely heavily of wild foods from the Churchill River.

The 2016 Harvard research, in a study of dozens of dams proposed or under construction in Canada – which relies on hydropower for three-fifths of its electricity – has also found that ninety-nine percent of these projects expose indigenous populations to unacceptable levels of methylmercury.


Forests cleared to create reservoirs for Hydro Quebec’s Romaine Project. Photo: A. Lathem

Large Dams Contribute to Climate Change.

And it would be a mistake to assume that large dams – even if technically “renewable” – do not contribute to climate change. Although emissions from reservoirs are lower than from fossil fuel power plants, these estimates do not take into account the emissions from the production of cement and steel, and from the use of earth-moving machinery, in dam construction. More importantly, they do no factor in the changes in land use and the loss of forests. The extensive deforestation associated with dam construction – from clearing reservoir areas, from providing timber companies access to previously inaccessible forests, and from clearing 800-mile long swaths of forest for transmission corridors  – is never factored into estimates of the climate impacts of dams.

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 forest landscapes 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 peatland, must be protected, scientists warn, to avoid this dangerous release of greenhouse gasses.

The free-flowing Romaine River, still pristine in 2008. Indigenous peoples depended upon the river for millennia, with no negative impacts.

Wild rivers and floodplains are needed for climate resilience.

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 warming below 2 degrees. In other words, an already degraded biosphere cannot sustain additional assaults, especially in a time of climate disruption.

This is what the land of Big Hydro looks like. Sept Isle, Quebec. Photo: A. Lathem

Imports will Require New Transmission Corridors through Forest Landscapes.

Any additional imports from Hydro Quebec will require more transmission lines – which have significant negative impacts – as New Hampshire regulators recognized in their recent decision to reject the Northern Pass. Central Maine Power has proposed a controversial plan to run a new transmission line through more than 50 miles of the Maine North Woods, the largest undeveloped forest east of the Mississippi River, to deliver Canadian hydropower to Massachusetts. The project would run across the Appalachian Trail three times and over the Kennebec River Gorge, the region’s crown jewel.

The alternative is to use less energy.

There is an alternative to a continuing reliance on fossil fuels, on the one hand, and a reliance on large hydro, or industrial wind farms covering our mountain ridges, on the other – and that is to use less energy. That is the most shovel ready alternative, the least costly solution, and the one that will have the most benefit for local economies.


David Abel. “In Québec, it’s power versus a people on hydroelectricity,” Boston Globe, Jan. 23, 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/01/22/land-full-hydropower-strife-comes-with-electrons/

David Abel. “Project Would Bring Renewable Energy to Mass. by Cutting Through Wilderness in Maine.” Boston Globe. April 23, 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2018/04/22/will-transmission-line-run-through-wilds-maine/

Bronsom W. Giscom et.al. “Natural climate solutions,” PNAS, September 5, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1710465114

Leah Burrows, “Human Health Risks from Hydroelectric Projects,” Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Nov. 9. 2016. https://www.seas.harvard.edu/news/2016/11/human-health-risks-from-hydroelectric-projects

“Canada Largest Contributor To Deforestation Worldwide: Study,” The Huffington Post Canada. www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/09/05/canada-deforestation-worst-.

Global Forest Watch. Hydropower Developments in Canada: Number, Size and Jurisdictional and Ecological Distribution. https://globalforestwatch.ca/sites/gfwc/files/publications/20120118A_Hydro1_Number_Size_Distribution.pdf.

Kate Horner. “Hydropower is not the answer for climate resilience,” https://www.devex.com/news/opinion-hydropower-is-not-the-answer-for-climate-resilience-91523.

“Hydroelectric dams emit a billion tonnes of greenhouse gases a year, study finds.” The Guardian. Nov. 14, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/nov/14/hydroelectric-dams-emit-billion-tonnes-greenhouse-gas-methane-study-climate-change

Hydro Quebec Strategic Plan. http://www.hydroquebec.com/data/documents-donnees/pdf/strategic-plan.pdf

Alexis Lathem. “Rage On, Sweet Romaine.” Alternatives Journal, Jan. 2014.www.alternativesjournal.ca

Ossie Michelin. “The Mighty Fight for Muskrat Falls,” Briarpatch. May 1, 1017. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/the-mighty-fight-for-muskrat-falls

McKinsey Institute. “Fueling sustainable development: The energy productivity solution,” Oct. 2008, http://tinyurl.com/5ae9wn.

Andrew Nikiforuk, “Megadams Not Clean or Green, Says Expert,” The Tyee. Jan. 24, 2018. https://thetyee.ca/News/2018/01/24/Megadams-Not-Clean-Green/.

David Roland-Holst. “Energy Efficiency, Innovation, and Job Creation in California,” http://tinyurl.com/6gujnf

“The Power of Negawatts: Efficiency: The Greenest Energy Source.” https://www.internationalrivers.org/sites/default/files/attached-files/energyfactsheet.pdf.