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muskrat falls

Protesters of the Muskrat Falls project gather on the steps of the Confederation Building in St. John's on Tuesday, Oct.25, 2016.Paul Daly/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders and the Newfoundland and Labrador government are telling protesters at the site of the Muskrat Falls hydro project they can "go home."

The leaders emerged from a marathon meeting with Premier Dwight Ball early Wednesday touting significant progress made to address environmental concerns with the Labrador megaproject.

Ball announced that an independent expert advisory committee made up of provincial, federal, municipal and indigenous groups will be created to monitor the project.

After the meeting, Nunatsiavut President Johannes Lampe told protesters to go home because they had succeeded in their goals.

"If you are still at the site, within or (outside), or if you are still doing the hunger strike, go home," Lampe said.

"I feel that the progress that has been made today will give the Labrador Inuit the opportunity to go back home to your family, your friends, your children, your grandchildren."

The project is upstream from 2,000 Inuit and other residents in the Lake Melville region, and critics are worried about methylmercury contamination if too many trees are left to rot at the bottom of the reservoir when the 41-square-kilometre area is flooded.

The advisory committee will look at ways to reduce possible contamination and the provincial government is also agreeing to consider further clearing of the Muskrat Falls reservoir if needed.

"Going forward, decisions will be made using science-based research," Ball told reporters after meeting with leaders from the Innu Nation, the Nunatsiavut Government and the NunatuKavut Community Council.

At least some of the protesters said they will leave Wednesday afternoon, while hunger strikers have already posted a picture of themselves resuming eating.

Supporters had been gathering around the Human Rights monument in Ottawa for Billy Gauthier, Delilah Saunders and Jerry Kohlmeister, who have been staging a hunger strike there in efforts to draw attention to the Muskrat Falls dispute.

The meeting came after about 50 protesters entered the central Labrador site Saturday and occupied an accommodation complex, prompting Nalcor, the Crown corporation building the project, to remove at least 700 workers from the grounds.

On Monday, the company obtained an injunction naming 22 people occupying the site for potential arrest.

Todd Russell, the president of the NunatuKavut Community Council, said he is confident the agreed-upon proposal will minimize the effects of methylmercury and secure his community's food and culture.

"The decisions that will be made, going forward, will not be at the whim of government," Russell said. "They will be made by science and it will incorporate the traditional knowledge of our people. This is a huge step forward."

In a statement, Nalcor's CEO said the company welcomed news of the agreement and would follow the outcome of the agreed-upon process.

"Our immediate priority is to resume normal operations at site in order to ensure completion of critical work to protect the site infrastructure for winter and to allow winter operations," said Stan Marshall. "We are assessing the financial and schedule impact of the new agreement which cannot be determined at this time."

The project is well behind schedule and over budget. Estimated costs have soared to $11.4 billion from $7.4 billion four years ago and first power has been delayed until 2019.

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