Churchill fails

Nova Scotia is pegging its renewable power hopes on a gigantic, destructive hydro project in Labrador.

Darrell Dexter was playing politics when he huffed and puffed this week about Quebec's objections to federal subsidies for an undersea power line between Newfoundland and Cape Breton. "The reality is that when good things happen for Quebec, it is seen as a triumph of federalism," the NS premier complained to the Herald. "But when good things happen for other regions, they are seen as an affront for Quebec."

Obviously, Dexter sees a potential undersea power line as one of the "good things" that federal money could help us buy, but on that score, he is wrong. An undersea cable would carry electricity from proposed hydro developments in Labrador that would complete the destruction of one of Canada's most spectacular natural wonders, the mighty river known to the Innu people as Mishta Shipu. English-speaking Labradorians translate the Innu name as Grand River, but in 1965, the Newfoundland government renamed it Churchill River after the death of the cigar-chomping former British prime minister. A year later, construction began on the massive Churchill Falls hydro-electric project flooding a vast area of Innu hunting and trapping territories, destroying Innu camp sites, tents, canoes, fishing gear and burial grounds and creating the Smallwood Reservoir, the world's third-largest artificial lake, bigger than the land mass of Prince Edward Island. The flooding converted naturally occurring mercury in soils and vegetation to extremely toxic methyl mercury contaminating fish that the Innu eat.

Now, the Newfoundland government is proposing to destroy the rest of the river by constructing two hydro-electric dams on what it calls the Lower Churchill. The project would flood an additional 126 square kilometres of wilderness creating two reservoirs nearly 300 kilometres long and contaminating the waters with more methyl mercury. None of the 2,800 megawatts of electricity would be available to Labradorians who depend on diesel generators for their power. Instead, transmission lines would be built to carry the power to Newfoundland. Most of it would then be sent via a costly undersea cable for potential use in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the US.

"Say no to the Lower Churchill, I beg you," Roberta Benefiel told about 15 people at a public meeting in Halifax on Monday. "It's not clean, it's not green and it's not cheap." The 64-year-old Benefiel, who lives in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, oversees Grand Riverkeeper, a group that is fighting the proposed hydro dams. She says she brought her message to Halifax hoping that people here would recognize the plight of the river. "I know it's out of sight, out of mind and I wanted as many people as possible to understand how we feel about this river, about the beauty of the river and what it means to us in Labrador. It's not just a hydro project."

Benefiel says she realizes that the Nova Scotia government sees hydro power from Labrador as one way of helping it meet its 40 percent renewable electricity target by 2020. In fact, Nova Scotia's recently released renewable electricity plan calls Lower Churchill power "clean, low-impact renewable energy."

"I don't think they realize either that people live on this river," Benefiel says. "I also don't think they realize the fact that it's not clean and it's not green...River ecosystems are not a renewable resource."

"Please write to the premier and tell him Nova Scotia should not be interested in bringing dirty power from Lower Churchill," Bruno Marcocchio told Monday's meeting in Halifax. Marcocchio was representing the Sierra Club, which supports the campaign to save the river. "This is a 1960s mega- project mentality applied 50 years later," he added. "Lower Churchill will be a $15 billion disaster."

The massive hydro project is currently undergoing a federal environmental review. Will the panel members assessing it recognize its inherent injustice? And will Darrell Dexter finally see the folly of trying to save the planet from catastrophic climate change by destroying rare natural wonders like the Mishta Shipu River?

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