Friday, November 23, 2007

How to Stop a Dam - The Great Whale Project Revisited

The shelving of the Great Whale Hydroelectric Project in Canada after an intense debate on its environmental and human impacts marked a turning point in the debate on the big versus small dam controversy in the (North) American continent.

The project proposed the damming of the Great Whale River flowing through the transitional area between the tundra and taiga in Quebec and emptying into the Hudson Bay. There were also plans to divert the nearby Little Whale River and the Nastapoca River to the Great Whale.

The proposed reservoirs would have covered 3391 square kilometres, transforming 1667 square kilometres of land environment and 1724 km of aquatic environment (lakes and rivers). The three underground generating stations proposed to tap this water were to have installed capacity exceeding 3200 MW.

The main proponent of the grandiose project was none other than Mr. Robert Bourassa who became the premier of Quebec in 1985. The state-owned power utility, Hydro Quebec, wanted the project to be taken up for meeting increasing domestic demands and for exports to the United States. According to Mr. Bourassa, the fundamental question was not whether to build Great Whale but whether to chose nuclear, coal or hydroelectric power. A hydroelectric plant protected the environment better than a coal fired or nuclear plant. The project was opposed by the Crees (native Amerindians) and the inuit (Eskimos), environmental organisations like the Greenpeace and Friends of Earth and other activists.

The mega project, James Bay I (La Grande Complex), undertaken earlier in the area south of Great Whale river, had caused serious disturbance to the water regime and aquatic life because of flooding and alteration of natural patterns of river flow, mercury pollution and unwelcome impacts on the lifestyle of Crees. Hydro Quebec acknowledged some of these impacts. According to Mr. Pierre Senecal and Dominique Egre of the Environment wing of the Hydro Quebec, the modification of flows in several rivers forced the Cree to adapt to new ways of travelling and harvesting wildlife resources. At the same time, the settling of the population and the introduction of television had accelerated the evolution of the Cree society.

Mercury pollution caused by leaching of mercury into the waters from flooded areas made fish inedible. Fish was an important component in the diet of Cree. According to Mr. Claude Langlois of Environment wing of Hydro Quebec, mercury levels in fish in the reservoir would normalise in 30 years. But experts like Mr. Allen Penn, Environmental Advisor to the Cree Regional Authority, contest this saying that there is no data indicating that it would. Mercury pollution was sure to occur if Great Whale is dammed. A study by Mr. Langlois showed that there were already higher levels of mercury among the wild life of the project area.

As far as the Crees were concerned, most of them were not agreeable for a repeat of their earlier experiences. The Grand Chief of Cree, Matthew Coon Come, argued that the Great Whale project would alter the seasonal patterns and quantity of water flow in the concerned rivers and water basins, adversely affect the wildlife and marine resources of the Hudson Bay and the James Bay, destroy the habitat of fur bearing animals, disturb the migration patterns of caribou (undomesticated reindeer which are hunted by the Cree), destroy spawning grounds of fish, deplete subsistence food resources which the Crees depend, severely increase mercury contamination of fish, change the ecology of Hudson Bay and James Bay, threaten endangered species, cause substantial pollution, endanger the health, safety and welfare of the native population and interfere with and cause extensive and irreparable damage, loss and prejudice to their livelihood, their way of life and traditional use of the land and natural resources.



The Cree took their fight to the United States and campaigned against the purchase of the power by utilities in the States. A joint delegation of Crees and inuit sailed to New York in 1990 in a hybrid craft with a bow of an Indian canoe and the stern of an Inuit kayak with much effect. The campaign finally led to the cancellation, early in 1994, of five million dollar contract by the New York Power Authority to buy power from Hydro Quebec. Later, the power company, Consolidated Edison, also backed out from a contract citing unresolved environmental questions. In Quebec, the growth in demand for power was slackening, and the new Government in Quebec was not very keen on continuing the fight.

Against this background, the then Premier, Jacques Parizeau, announced in November 1994, that the project was being put on ice. The previous day, the Federal and Provincial Review Committees had referred the feasibility study back to Hydro Quebec citing 'major inadequacies'.

Hydro Quebec is also veering round to a similar view, but for a different reason: "It must be admitted that large scale projects are less appropriate to respond to moderate growth in electricity demand. Hence in the future, Hydro Quebec will opt for small and medium size projects," the utility said in its submission to the Consultation Panel for the Public Debate on Energy in Quebec. The debate itself was something that the environmental groups were demanding for long.

Here is the full article.