Churchill (Grand) River, Labrador, Canada

Phase I of the Lower Churchill project in Labrador, under construction since 2012 and finished in August, 2019, the 824 MW Muskrat Falls project, consists of a dam, a spillway, a powerhouse the size of a 25 story building, and a 41 square kilometer reservoir. Two transmission corridors will carry the electricity generated from this facility over 800 miles from Muskrat Falls to the Labrador coast, under the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland, and across the island to the Avalon Peninsula. A second undersea transmission line will carry power to Nova Scotia. Various transmission lines are proposed to further export electricity from Nova Scotia to the eastern United States.

In July 2010, the Innu Nation (which represents only the two Innu communities in Labrador, one of them 15 kilometers from Happy Valley/ Goose Bay) gave their consent to the Lower Churchill project in 2010, as part of their comprehensive land rights agreement.

Living downstream of Muskrat Falls, however, are Inuit, Métis, and Euro Canadian communities who were not consulted and who did not consent. Both the Nunatsiavut and Nunatikavut governments, representing the southern Labrador Inuit and the Labrador Métis, respectively, filed lawsuits to stop the project. “Traditional lands, wildlife, and fish habitat will be destroyed: millions of cubic meters of rock will be removed from the river banks; the river itself will be diverted; vast areas of habitat will be wiped out; known archeological sites will be destroyed; harmful chemicals, including mercury will contaminate the whole ecosystem,” the nations stated in a joint news release.

In 2009 the Nunatsiavut government partnered with a group of Harvard researchers to study the effects of impounding water behind the dam on methyl mercury levels in Lake Melville, an estuarine fjord that drains the Churchill River watershed, and an important source of wild foods for the Inuit. The results of the four-year study surprised even the scientists, who found unexpectedly high methyl mercury levels in Lake Melville from melting arctic ice and predicted a four-fold increase in mercury contamination from the Muskrat Falls reservoir. “Hundreds of Inuit individuals will be affected by this development,” said Harvard lead researcher Dr. Elsie Sunderland, “to the point that they exceed regulatory thresholds for exposure.” 

Inflamed by these findings, the protest movement escalated its activities, staging marches and rallies in St John, Ottawa, and Montreal, along with sit-ins, hunger strikes, and a two-week occupation of the worksite in 2016 that finally resulted in concessions from Nalcor, which agreed to reduce methyl mercury contamination by partially clearing the reservoir area.

Nearby communities are also worried about the stability of the north spur—a landmass forming a natural dam composed of marine clay or “quick clay,” a highly unstable compound that is notorious for landslides. This will be the first time a hydro dam has been built on quick clay. Swedish researcher Stig Bernader, an expert on marine clay, has called the structure unstable and unsafe for a dam; however, Nalcor’s own peer review panel has disputed Bernader’s findings. Residents living downstream are not comforted by the company’s assurances that they will have advance warning in the event of a dam failure.

The Mud Lake Flood of 2017 has heightened their anxieties. In May 2017 –the first spring since the creation of the reservoir  – the residents of Mud Lake, a town of 50 people located beside the Churchill River, had to be airlifted to safety after they woke up in the morning to find twelve feet of water in their homes. Residents blame the dam – this was the first time in living memory the town had to be evacuated due to flooding– but Nalcor insists that it was an unusually wet year and that it did nothing to manipulate the river’s flow.

In 2016, the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project was officially declared a boondoggle. “Muskrat Falls was not the right choice for the province,” admitted Nalcor’s own CEO Stan Marshall in June 2016, calling the project and its transmission lines “too large” for the province or its energy needs. The cost of the project has swelled from $6 billion in 2012 to more than $12 billion in 2017. Electric rates are expected to rise to 22 cents per kilowatt-hour as a result, double the current rate. This could mean an additional $150 per month in electricity bills for Newfoundlanders who are already struggling in a failing economy.

But it’s too late to stop now, says Marshall, after 6.7 billion have already been spent, and because Nalcor is contractually obligated to provide free electricity to Emera, which is building the submarine cables to Nova Scotia, for the next 35 years. Newfoundland, moreover, is counting on electricity from Muskrat Falls to replace its 500 MW thermal plant, in order to meet its renewable energy targets.

Update: October 14, 2021N.L. Hydro confirms Muskrat Falls schedule ‘not achievable,’ with completion date now uncertain