World Press Freedom Day: On the Ground at Muskrat Falls

World Press Freedom Day: On the Ground at Muskrat Falls

Photo: Janet Cooper

May 3, 2018 3:26pmET


Justin Brake, believed to be the first journalist in Canadian history to face both criminal and civil charges for his work, has won this year’s award from the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom.

Brake’s real-time coverage for The Independent of the  protests and occupation at the Muskrat Falls hydro site in Labrador helped highlight local concerns about the risk of methylmercury poisoning from a newly-flooded reservoir:

He spoke with CPAC’s Peter Van Dusen before receiving the award in Ottawa as part of World Press Freedom Day.

Here’s what he was covering — and why it garnered so much attention.

MUSKRAT FALLS AND METHYLMERCURY

Nalcor Energy, a provincial Crown corporation, is building an 824-megawatt hydroelectric facility (spillway, two dams, and powerhouse) at Muskrat Falls, on Labrador’s Churchill River about 30 kilometres from Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

Completion of the multi-billion dollar project (expected in 2020) will see electric power transmitted to the Island of Newfoundland and to Nova Scotia, connecting to the wider North American power grid. The promise is a large supply of clean, renewable electricity — and economic benefits for Atlantic Canada.

But the Innu and Inuit people living in the area argued flooding required to create a 41-square-kilometre reservoir would contaminate the Churchill River with unsafe levels of methylmercury — a highly toxic form of mercury that can damage the brain and nervous system.

A 2016 Harvard University study projected a major increase in methylmercury levels near Muskrat Falls. And that water would flow downstream to Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other communities around Lake Melville:

Protesters demanded the removal of trees, plants, and soil, from the area to be flooded, to prevent the carbon release that leads to methylmercury forming.

Nalcor agreed to remove the trees, but not the soil.

Once flooding occurred in autumn 2016, the Newfoundland and Labrador government reached an agreement with Innu and Inuit leaders to release water in the spring before warming — and before methylmercury could form. But the release was delayed, with Nalcor citing a need to install more safety equipment.

The Nunatsiavut government, which represents the Inuit in Labrador, began a campaign for Nalcor to properly contain the methylmercury risk.

Nalcor’s map of the reservoir created at Muskrat Falls:

Source: Nalcor

THE PROTEST AND THE CHARGES

Brake, who now works for APTN in Halifax, covered demonstrations at the site in October 2016 for The Independent, a St. John’s-based online publication.

Brake followed about 50 protesters as they broke through a locked gate and into the project site on Oct. 22, 2016, after several days of blocking the entrance:

Brake also live-streamed the protest for several days as the group occupied workers’ accommodations.

Nalcor later sued Brake for allegedly violating a court injunction against trespassing on the Muskrat Falls site. He was also charged criminally with disobeying a court order and mischief concerning property over $5,000.

Here’s what Brake was thinking at the time, and now that more than a year has past:

Both cases remain in the court system. A provincial judge denied a request to stay the criminal charges.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS

A provincial inquiry on the Muskrat Falls project was established last November to look at cost overruns, government oversight, and whether political leaders were aware of potential risks before giving approval.

The Newfoundland and Labrador government also asked for advice on health and environmental issues from an independent advisory committee. Their April 2018 recommendations include soil removal from the reservoir — though not all Indigenous communities supported the idea. Nalcor, which remains opposed to the removal process, estimated the cost at between $409 and $742 million.

Nalcor, meanwhile, has posted environmental reports online and claims: “We are committed to continue monitoring after construction is complete and as long as necessary to help ensure the health of people in the area is protected … Monitoring for methylmercury in water and sediment is currently taking place in various locations in the lower Churchill River area.

So what does Justin Brake think about the impact of his work?

Watch Justin Brake’s full interview with Peter Van Dusen on PrimeTime Politics:

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY

Today marks the 25th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day, initially proclaimed by the United Nations in 1993.

The day marks press freedom and independence — but also pays tribute to journalists killed, many of them deliberately for their work.

In 2017, 81 journalists were reported killed around the world.

And just this week 10 journalists were targeted and killed in Afghanistan.

-Andrew Thomson