Governments, most people would agree, shouldn't poison their citizens. And yet somehow, in their deference to an over-budget, woefully behind-schedule hydroelectric megaproject on the Churchill River, the leaders of Newfoundland and Labrador were prepared to do just that.
Fortunately – but only thanks to disruptive last-minute protests by indigenous communities at the Muskrat Falls site in Labrador – Premier Dwight Ball has begun to see reason on the toxic threat posed by an out-of-control project meant to supply "clean" power to Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
Opponents of the dam have contended for years that it could pose a serious risk to traditional food supplies for down-river communities, because of heavy methylmercury contamination in the soil of the land that is about to be flooded. Public officials have acknowledged that mercury levels in fish would increase, but they have been reluctant to face the problem head-on and do the right thing by first removing the toxic topsoil.
Methylmercury poisoning causes irreversible neurological damage and heart problems. Newfoundland's solution was to monitor mercury levels downstream post-flooding, and presumably advise traditional communities to switch to non-toxic menu options when their fish and seal harvests were compromised. The sheer arrogance of this paternalistic non-solution became laughably obvious when a St. John's Liberal MP, Nick Whalen, blithely instructed indigenous people to "eat less fish."
It would be funny if it weren't so pathetic. Grandiose megaprojects like Muskrat Falls have a way of making politicians lose touch with reality, to the point where an unacceptable level of poisoning can be justified when only a small number of people in remote communities might be affected. The protests at the Muskrat Falls site have been a necessary corrective to this myopic understanding of government and its role in securing the lives of all citizens.
Premier Ball has now agreed to address the concerns of the protesters and establish an independent committee to monitor the hydroelectric project and reduce methylmercury contamination. It shouldn't have taken a protest to force the hand of the Newfoundland government – not when sound science and basic humanity could have led to the same conclusion much sooner.