(The above photo was posted to Facebook on Saturday. It was reportedly shared by a worker on the Muskrat Falls site and shows a landslide on the north side of the river.)
Anxiety in on the rise in Labrador as land protectors and others living downstream of Muskrat Falls react to images that show a landslide on the banks of the Lower Churchill River at the project site.
Residents of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Mud Lake held a motorcade in Happy Valley Monday to protest the Crown energy corporation and Muskrat Falls proponent Nalcor Energy’s response to the event.
On Sunday, after the photos were reportedly leaked by a worker on the Muskrat Falls site the previous day, Nalcor issued a statement saying the slide poses “no safety risk in relation to the North Spur or the Muskrat Falls facilities,” and that landslides along the river are “fairly common.”
The North Spur is a natural peninsula in the river that Nalcor is using to form a “natural dam” as part of the Muskrat Falls facilities.
As far back as the project’s environmental assessment process Innu elders and others with knowledge of the area have expressed concerns with the dam being built in part on land comprised of sand and marine clay, also known as “quick clay”.
“We are asking that Nalcor and the [provincial] government show genuine concern and empathy and give us honest and forthright answers,” the Labrador Land Protectors said in a press release issued Monday ahead of the motorcade.
“We feel Nalcor’s response is insensitive to the concerns of those who live downstream of this project, who have already seen the wrath of the river in last spring’s flood.”
Last spring residents of Mud Lake, a remote community of about 50 that resides in the Muskrat Falls flood zone, were airlifted to Goose Bay in an emergency evacuation after water levels in the Churchill River flooded many homes.
Residents say that in Mud Lake’s 200 year history water levels have never risen to the extent they did in May 2017.
Many attribute the flooding to the Muskrat Falls facilities and believe the dam, which is reportedly more than two-third complete, altered the behaviour of the river flow and caused an ice jam that backed up water into Mud Lake.
An independent review of the flooding concluded that Muskrat Falls was not to blame, though some observers have argued the analysis did not have enough data to render a definitive conclusion.
“For Nalcor to simply say there is no danger with this newest landslide shows an offhanded dismissal of the downstream population’s very real fears,” the Labrador Land Protectors’ statement continued.
“We have been vocal that residents living in the flood zones, especially Mud Lake and the lower Valley, are under incredible stress and anguish while government and company continue to downplay concerns as trivial and insignificant.”
APTN News requested information on the slide from Nalcor; a spokesperson responded by directing APTN back to the corporation’s three-paragraph statement, which only says the slide occurred on the north side of the river, downstream of the North Spur and outside of the North Spur dam stabilization area.
Residents of the area, including Innu and Inuit who were involved in the 2016 protests that led to blockades and an occupation of the Muskrat Falls site, have been calling on the provincial government to order an independent review of Nalcor’s assessment of the North Spur and the corporation’s geotechnical engineering plans to stabilize the area to prevent a dam breach.
While the Liberals have ordered a public inquiry into the project as a whole, and more recently a forensic audit of Nalcor, they haven’t alleviated locals’ fears of a dam breach with calls for an inquiry into the North Spur.
Independent Newfoundland and Labrador MHA Paul Lane told APTN Monday that residents of the area have told him “they’re in fear of their life,” and that “they can’t sleep at night.”
“If Nalcor is confident in the fact that they have a solution [to stabilize the North Spur], then come forward with what exactly it is they’re going to do — and have that open to be scrutinized and have an independent review,” he said.
“Because quite frankly people are not willing to take their word for it, and I think that’s what it’s come down to. For them to just simply proclaim, ‘Don’t worry about it guys, everything is ok — we’re confident’ — people are not accepting them face value on their word.”
Maurice Adams, a blogger and longtime critic of Muskrat Falls, said his and others’ primary concerns around the North Spur and the dam’s stability once water levels are raised in the reservoir are consequent to Nalcor’s methodology in its assessments of the North Spur.
“Once the reservoir is raised up to 39 metres, from what I’ve read the increase in the pressure, horizontally, is exponentially higher in accordance with the increase in the depth in the water. So we don’t really know that that particular area is safe,” he said Monday.
Adams referred to the work of Swedish engineers Dr. Stig Bernander and Dr. Lennart Elfgren, who have taken an interest in Muskrat Falls because of the dam’s position atop glacial marine sediments and the unique challenges that poses.
They questioned Nalcor’s methodolgy in assessing the probability of landslides around the North Spur once water levels are raised in the Muskrat Falls reservoir, in a report released last year. They fear a dam breach may occur if the proper work is not done to properly assess the risks of landslides, and to adequately stabilize the area prior to flooding.
Nalcor has repeatedly maintained it has done the proper work, though critics like Adams and many locals living downstream say Nalcor hasn’t sufficiently addressed the concerns highlighted by Bernander and Elfgren.
“An independent assessment into whether or not what Dr. Bernander is saying, and the methodology he says needs to be used to assess what kind of stabilization might be appropriate for the North Spur — that needs to be independently assessed and somebody need to determine whether or not what Nalcor has done there is based on sound engineering methodologies,” said Adams.
Roberta Benefiel of Grand Riverkeeper Labrador, another longtime critic of the Muskrat Falls project, said she wants Nalcor to immediately lower the water in the partially flooded reservoir.
“We want them to slowly lower the water, now, because we’re worried — Mud Lake is very worried,” she said Monday. “We think that’s the least [Nalcor] can do. Start to lower the water now, and do it at a sensible pace, instead of what they did last year.”
In a Facebook live video of the motorcade posted by the Labrador Land Protectors Inuk land protector Marjorie Flowers criticizes Nalcor’s response to the slide.
“The audacity is the only word that comes to mind, to only focus on their infrastructure when people have been living in real fear and anxiety for so long. And then this slide happens, and nothing,” Flower says.
In their press release the land protectors also took aim at the government, which received a petition days before the May 2017 flooding of Mud Lake from more than a thousand residents, including many from the five communities downstream of Muskrat Falls.
The petition asked for an independent review of the North Spur.
Land protectors say almost a year later they still have not received a response from Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Dwight Ball, who is also the self-appointed minister responsible for Labrador Affairs and the Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs secretariat.
APTN requested comment from Ball Monday, but that request was passed on to the Department of Natural Resources. A response was not received by the time of publication.
Land protectors said in their press release that an independent inquiry into the North Spur would “finally allow residents to feel supported and that their elected representatives were ensuring their lives and safety.”