The devastation is widespread; there is clear cutting for hundreds of acres all in the name of “pre-construction work” and for a project that has yet to be sanctioned. To add to the devastation, a closed gate has been installed on the South side of Muskrat Falls, with a guardhouse to keep people away from the area, including aboriginal groups who use that area for their traditional fishing and hunting grounds.
All that led the NunatuKavut Community Council (NCC) to take extreme measures and hire a helicopter to fly over Muskrat Falls and take photos of the pre-construction work that has been taking place.
Todd Russell said that his council and community members have an inherent right to the land and the land is under a land claim.
“We are shocked and we are saddened at what is happening,” said Russell.
He said that he and the NCC have done everything they could to have talks with the province and Nalcor to discuss the development that has been going on their traditional lands.
“We have fought for recognition of our rights, we have fought for some measure of respect. All of this has been denied us,” Russell said.
He said what has been most disconcerting to him and his community is they have been unable to get information from Nalcor and the provincial government.
“We took an extraordinary measure, we chartered a helicopter, to try and understand the nature and the extent of the construction that is taking place on our land.”
Russell presented a slide show of the work going on, on the south side of Muskrat Falls and the images are shocking — vast areas of trees cut to the ground, five open pits, where you can see rocks and boulders being excavated and sent to a crusher, where they are crushed to make a road that is estimated to be 16 km long.
In one of the slides you can see where there is an attempt to divert a stream, where a ford has been constructed as well as temporary bridges to move equipment and vehicles.
At the McKenzie Brook crossing you can see tire marks where vehicles have been crossing as well as silt runoff into the Brook. There is no evidence that silt liners have been installed to protect the water.
“People should know that McKenzie Brook is a Salmon bearing waterway. Of course we are into the fall weather and we have spawning season, so this is a very sensitive time. No doubt we can see some activity taking place,” Russell said.
Russell said the NCC is very concerned and have made their position known to DFO, who told the NCC that they have done some work in there. From the aerial photos, it is clear that some equipment is crossing the Creek.
“There is quite a bit of damage, this not just one piece of equipment going across one time, this is obviously a regular route for heavy equipment,” said Russell.
Gilbert Bennett Nalcor’s Vice President, Lower Churchill Project said they could ford a river or water body. There are situations where culverts would be installed, and situations where a bridge would be installed on the site.
“On McKenzie we did look at that site with the DFO for fording the river in contemplation of installing a bridge over the river itself,” Bennett said.
Russell said that the NCC is working with the DFO to see if there are environmental violations going on with regards to McKenzie Brook.
There are also several archeological digs going on at Muskrat Falls, concurrent to construction.
“It only makes common sense that you would do archeological work prior to construction, prior to disturbances, so that any potential artifacts and any type of material (historical materials) are intact or preserved,” said Russell.
Russell said that concerns have been raised about the archeological work that has been done and he has asked for the reports of the findings.
“We (NCC) have not been invited into the archeological site nor have we been invited to participate in what is going on the ground. We have not been privy to anything that has been discovered,” he said.
Bennett said the Provincial Archeological Office (PAO) is the provincial body that is responsible for the protection archeological resources.
“We have specific protocols in place with them, in fact they authorize any archeological work that is undertaken, including these investigations. We (Nalcor) have an obligation to investigate at the site, to identify and catalogue anything we do find,” he said.
Bennett said ultimately anything found is turned over to the PAO and they have the obligation to preserve those resources.
When asked by the Labradorian if red okra, pottery, ancient tools and human remains had been found at the site; Bennett said no remains have been found.
“The specifics what is identified at the site reported back to the PAO. Because of the importance of the resources they look for that information directly. That is not something that we would typically disclose, one of the reasons is that work that we do is fairly preliminary. In fact, further investigation would have to be done back in the lab, to properly identify and catalogue those resources and that information is turned over to the PAO,” Bennett said.
Bennett said where the digs are going they are not in areas where there is active construction, but is part of Nalcor’s study program, prior to completing work at those locations.
“The archeological work is not at an active worksite where we are constructing the access road. We have an obligation to look at those areas and there is a buffer area established around the identified sites where there is high potential. Those sites were identified in our assessment work,” he added.
Bennett said that the PAO requires that Nalcor take further investigation work in those areas where the access road is going through, before construction can begin in the area.
Russell said that the aerial photos do not show the full extent of the damage because they were not allowed to land at the site because notices have been issued telling pilots not to land in the area.
He said that based on this, it shows that the aboriginal rights of the NCC and aboriginal people have been violated.
“They have not only been infringed upon by the actions of the government by not engaging with us, fully consulting with us, or accommodating with us. They have been infringed upon by an incomplete environmental process,” Russell said.
Russell said that the evidence is clear that the rights of the NCC’s aboriginal rights are being trampled on. All the work is preventing the NCC members from hunting and fishing on their traditional lands.
“The most concrete example of that is that we are locked out by a gate on our own lands,” he added.
Russell said that the government has not made a decision on Muskrat Falls, but when you see the photos, it looks like someone “pulled the switch” and the project and work on it is going full speed ahead.
Bennett said that Nalcor has been very specific on the work that is going on and is part of their preliminary work for Muskrat Falls.
“The scope of that work includes the clearing of the right away for the road, the clearing for the location for the camp and other areas where we will be doing work in the future and we have identified no other work outside of those activities,” he said.
Bennett stressed that all the activity going on at Muskrat Falls has been permitted and the permits come from various provincial departments that have jurisdiction associated with those activities.
“There is a consultation process in place with aboriginal groups, including NunatuKavut. They have been advised of all of our permit applications that have been filed and that process has been ongoing throughout the year,” he said.
Russell said that the NCC had sent their own aboriginal fishing guardians to do an on-site inspection and they were denied access.
Bennett said in checking the records on site he is not aware of NCC official from the NunatuKavut Fisheries.
“I am not aware of anybody who presented themselves at the site with that type of request,” said Bennett.
Bennett said even if they did show up there are a series of protocols that have to be met before there is access to the site.
“It requires authorized personnel, complete safety training and have an orientation on the site, before we permit anybody on the site,” he added.
Last week Russell and the NCC began on-the-ground action to exert their aboriginal land rights by stopping traffic on the Trans Labrador Highway outside Cartwright to advise drivers of their land rights and not only the rights to the area of Muskrat Falls.
“In terms of our underground action, I can tell you it will become more intense and more direct and more prolonged,” he said.
He says that the NCC will be launching a legal action and an action that is in defence of their aboriginal rights. And at the same time he said that there is an offer for the province and Nalcor to sit at the table and negotiate land usage.
“An Injunction is one form of legal action we can take. We will choose a legal option that has the best chance of winning, with the greatest impact in terms of making sure our rights are respected,” Russell said.
Bennett said that there is a comprehensive process in place, it included aboriginal consultation. The work that Nalcor is doing is approved through the environmental assessment process.
“We have been very clear on the scope of preliminary work we have undertaken for this year as part of the ultimate decision for a sanction decision,” added Bennett.