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Responses from federal regulators on Muskrat Falls

The provincial government is expecting to hear back from indigenous leaders in Labrador by end of day Friday on the plans to partially flood the reservoir for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric plant.
The provincial government is expecting to hear back from indigenous leaders in Labrador by end of day Friday on the plans to partially flood the reservoir for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric plant.

The provincial government is expecting to hear back from indigenous leaders in Labrador by end of day Friday on the plans to partially flood the reservoir for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric plant.

If given approval (and, if not, what happens remains unclear), the partially flooded area would be drained next year, bringing everyone back to the question of methylmercury release and whether or not topsoil will be removed from the 41-kilometre reservoir area to keep methylmercury levels to a minimum.

The secondary questions there are exactly how much soil would be removed and how the task would, or could, physically be completed.

There are regulatory considerations. And so The Telegram posed related questions to federal regulators.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was asked if a separate environmental assessment would be required for the removal of soil from the reservoir.

The Joint Review Panel examining the Lower Churchill Project (covering hydro developments at both Muskrat Falls and Gull Island) tackled the idea in its original report in 2011, in a section titled, “Fate of Mercury in the Reservoirs.”

“An additional federal environmental assessment would therefore not be required,” stated an emailed response to questions from The Telegram, received Thursday.

The panel’s report recommended Nalcor Energy — working with Natural Resources Canada and potentially other hydroelectric power producers in Canada — complete a study of the soil-removal approach.

“The Panel accepts that selective soil removal around the reservoir rim is not yet proven as mitigation but observes that this approach appears to have merit, especially if the clearing can be confined to the reservoir rim,” the report stated.

However, the panel also explicitly advised the study be completed before the creation of the Gull Island hydro power plant. Earlier in the report, it is made clear Nalcor Energy is planning to complete the Muskrat Falls project and then (potentially with some overlap) a development at Gull Island, located between Muskrat Falls and the Churchill Falls power plant on the Churchill River.

In other words, the recommendation on completing the study was described as a concern for the larger Gull Island project and not the Muskrat Falls project.

But has the study been done?

“As of today, such a pilot program has not been undertaken, and the feasibility and effectiveness of vegetation and soil removal has not been established,” stated Nalcor Energy communications manager Karen O’Neill, in response to questions Thursday.

Apart from the need for environmental assessment, the provincial government has been unable to say definitively whether or not any separate permitting would be required through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), in the case of reservoir soil removal at Muskrat Falls.

At this point, DFO cannot say.

In an emailed response to questions, a spokesman for DFO said any proposals for Muskrat Falls reservoir work, for activity not already permitted, would have to be reviewed.

“Depending on the nature of the proposals received, and the assessment of their impacts, the department would determine if specific measures are required to protect fish and fish habitat,” he stated. “Depending on the measures proposed, they may not require amendment of the existing DFO authorization.”

There was no indication of any flat-out prohibition. However, it was clear a plan would have to be put forward, before the regulator could respond.

Reservoir topsoil removal has not been a part of previous hydroelectric power projects. Physically, the work has been done in the mining sector, but to create impoundments for tailings, as in the case of Sandy Pond and the processing facility at Long Harbour. In that situation, the environmental considerations post-flooding would be quite different.

The suggestion is further research is required in relation to soil removal — its feasibility, what it would mean for methylmercury levels and any potential environmental consequences.

The “Independent Expert Advisory Committee” is expected to help guide the research at this point.

Also at this point, the expectation among indigenous leaders is the required science will be completed before the flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir and applied to that project.

The expectation of Make Muskrat Right protesters is the soil clearing will be completed, with the only questions being how it will be done and to what degree.

The premier and provincial Environment minister committed to being led by the science and making science-based decisions, but have not specifically committed to soil removal.

Nalcor Energy leadership, including CEO and president Stan Marshall, say soil clearing is not required, but is also an unknown when it comes to potential environmental effects.

The indigenous leaders have been undertaking community and expert consultations focused on methylmercury concerns and the consideration of engineering reports supplied by Nalcor Energy — reports the provincial government believes support the position that the reservoir area must be at least partially flooded before winter to protect the infrastructure in place.

Marshall has made it clear Nalcor Energy and its contractors are ready to quickly proceed with the partial flooding.

The next step will be the decision and statements from indigenous leaders on the initial, partial flooding.

telegram@thetelegram.com

If given approval (and, if not, what happens remains unclear), the partially flooded area would be drained next year, bringing everyone back to the question of methylmercury release and whether or not topsoil will be removed from the 41-kilometre reservoir area to keep methylmercury levels to a minimum.

The secondary questions there are exactly how much soil would be removed and how the task would, or could, physically be completed.

There are regulatory considerations. And so The Telegram posed related questions to federal regulators.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency was asked if a separate environmental assessment would be required for the removal of soil from the reservoir.

The Joint Review Panel examining the Lower Churchill Project (covering hydro developments at both Muskrat Falls and Gull Island) tackled the idea in its original report in 2011, in a section titled, “Fate of Mercury in the Reservoirs.”

“An additional federal environmental assessment would therefore not be required,” stated an emailed response to questions from The Telegram, received Thursday.

The panel’s report recommended Nalcor Energy — working with Natural Resources Canada and potentially other hydroelectric power producers in Canada — complete a study of the soil-removal approach.

“The Panel accepts that selective soil removal around the reservoir rim is not yet proven as mitigation but observes that this approach appears to have merit, especially if the clearing can be confined to the reservoir rim,” the report stated.

However, the panel also explicitly advised the study be completed before the creation of the Gull Island hydro power plant. Earlier in the report, it is made clear Nalcor Energy is planning to complete the Muskrat Falls project and then (potentially with some overlap) a development at Gull Island, located between Muskrat Falls and the Churchill Falls power plant on the Churchill River.

In other words, the recommendation on completing the study was described as a concern for the larger Gull Island project and not the Muskrat Falls project.

But has the study been done?

“As of today, such a pilot program has not been undertaken, and the feasibility and effectiveness of vegetation and soil removal has not been established,” stated Nalcor Energy communications manager Karen O’Neill, in response to questions Thursday.

Apart from the need for environmental assessment, the provincial government has been unable to say definitively whether or not any separate permitting would be required through the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), in the case of reservoir soil removal at Muskrat Falls.

At this point, DFO cannot say.

In an emailed response to questions, a spokesman for DFO said any proposals for Muskrat Falls reservoir work, for activity not already permitted, would have to be reviewed.

“Depending on the nature of the proposals received, and the assessment of their impacts, the department would determine if specific measures are required to protect fish and fish habitat,” he stated. “Depending on the measures proposed, they may not require amendment of the existing DFO authorization.”

There was no indication of any flat-out prohibition. However, it was clear a plan would have to be put forward, before the regulator could respond.

Reservoir topsoil removal has not been a part of previous hydroelectric power projects. Physically, the work has been done in the mining sector, but to create impoundments for tailings, as in the case of Sandy Pond and the processing facility at Long Harbour. In that situation, the environmental considerations post-flooding would be quite different.

The suggestion is further research is required in relation to soil removal — its feasibility, what it would mean for methylmercury levels and any potential environmental consequences.

The “Independent Expert Advisory Committee” is expected to help guide the research at this point.

Also at this point, the expectation among indigenous leaders is the required science will be completed before the flooding of the Muskrat Falls reservoir and applied to that project.

The expectation of Make Muskrat Right protesters is the soil clearing will be completed, with the only questions being how it will be done and to what degree.

The premier and provincial Environment minister committed to being led by the science and making science-based decisions, but have not specifically committed to soil removal.

Nalcor Energy leadership, including CEO and president Stan Marshall, say soil clearing is not required, but is also an unknown when it comes to potential environmental effects.

The indigenous leaders have been undertaking community and expert consultations focused on methylmercury concerns and the consideration of engineering reports supplied by Nalcor Energy — reports the provincial government believes support the position that the reservoir area must be at least partially flooded before winter to protect the infrastructure in place.

Marshall has made it clear Nalcor Energy and its contractors are ready to quickly proceed with the partial flooding.

The next step will be the decision and statements from indigenous leaders on the initial, partial flooding.

telegram@thetelegram.com

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