Federal government and government of Newfoundland and Labrador must act immediately to address serious health threats to Inuit families living downstream of the Muskrat Falls Dam
The latest scientific study of the potential impacts of a large hydro-electric dam now under construction in Labrador once again underlines the profound failure of the federal and provincial governments to properly safeguard the human rights of Inuit hunters and fishers who rely on downstream waters for their subsistence, health, and culture.
Construction of the Muskrat Falls dam is underway. As is the case with all large dams, the flooding will result in the formation of methylmercury as vegetation decomposes.
Methylmercury is one of the most dangerous environmental contaminants. It accumulates in the food chain, reaching higher and higher concentrations in top predators such as seals and large fish. Consumed by humans, methylmercury can lead to a wide range of debilitating health effects, including neurological degeneration, and cognitive impairment among infants and children.
The federal and provincial governments approved the dam without a detailed scientific study of the effects on the downstream Lake Melville estuary, despite concerns raised by Inuit hunters and fishers who rely on these waters, and despite gaps in knowledge of the potential harms flagged by the independent environmental assessment of the dam.
In 2015, a peer-reviewed study by a Harvard University-led team of scientists refuted government assurances that methylmercury contamination in Lake Melville would be insignificant.
A follow-up study released this week warns that construction of the dam will result in a dramatic increase in exposure to methylmercury among Inuit who rely on fish, seal and other wild foods. Based on current consumption of wild foods, the study estimates that almost half of the community of Rigolet would be exposed to methylmercury levels exceeding Canadian health guidelines, withexposure in some individuals increasing by up to 1500%.
Conditions established as part of the government approval of the Muskrat Falls dam include monitoring methylmercury in fish and issuing warnings against eating the fish if mercury levels get too high.
The new study underlines the inadequacy of these measures to safeguard the health and well-being of Inuit hunters and fishers who depend on wild foods both as a central part of their diet and as an indispensable part of their cultural identity.
The new study notes, “Harvesting puts food on the table in a region with high market food costs and almost 5 times the food insecurity rates of the general Canadian population.” Or as one hunter quoted in the study put it, “Ninety-five percent of my food is what I eat off of the land”
The Inuit government of Nunatsiavut has called for full clearing of all vegetation and topsoil in the reservoir area before flooding, a measure that would help to significantly reduce the formation of methylmercury. Although a similar recommendation was also made by the environmental review panel, the federal and provincial governments did not make it a condition of approval.
Amnesty International supports the government of Nunatsiavut in its continued calls for full clearing of the reservoir area before flooding begins. Amnesty also urges the two levels of government to work collaboratively with the Inuit to put in place other mitigation measures in keeping with the potential for serious harm.
Health, livelihood and culture are fundamental human rights protected in international law. The federal and provincial obligation to uphold these rights includes a duty to take every reasonable precaution to identify and address possible threats such as contamination of vital food sources before the harm becomes irreversible.