I was standing beside Elizabeth Penashuae, a 54-year-old Innu woman from Sheshatshit, Labrador, listening to her describe what was once one of the world's great cataracts: "Pashuatuan. That's what we called her…. From far off we could see the mist and we would say, that's where Pashuatuan is…" Penashuae and I were on a promontory facing what was left of the cascade, looking down on a deep chasm that once had been a cauldron of white water. What we witnessed, instead, was a desiccated bed of gravel and boulders. The once mighty falls had been reduced to a spindly vein of water. Surpassed only by Niagara, the Grand Falls of Labrador—rechristened Churchill Falls in 1965 by its developers—had been the second most powerful waterfall in North America before it was dammed. Pashuatuan (meaning "Great Steam Rising" in the Innu language) was the name of the river spirit that rose out of the canyon in a tall column of mist and could be seen from miles away. "Like a snow bank," Penashuae said.
Behind the precipice over which the river once dropped almost 300 feet in an explosion of white water, the Churchill River has been diverted underground for 30 miles of its course. Forty-four miles of dikes impound the drainage of an area the size of New Brunswick into one giant mass of water, called the Smallwood Reservoir. This is where Penashuae remembers traveling as a child with her family over the tangle of lakes and rivers, by canoe and portage, snowshoe and toboggan, and where she was born on a small and beautiful island that is now submerged.
The Churchill Falls hydroelectric powerhouse was, at the time it was completed in 1972, the largest in the world. Today, it is surpassed only by the Robert Bourassa generating station (named after Quebec's former premier, the "grandfather" of the James Bay projects), which forms part of the hydroelectric complex in James Bay. From where we stood, the electricity flows for hundreds of miles through boreal wildlands to Quebec, where it is resold (for 50 times the price) to cities in Ontario, New York, and New England.
I live in Vermont, which has relied on Hydro-Québec for a third of its electricity for at least 30 years. Yet it would come as a surprise to most Vermonters to learn that the electricity that lights their homes has traveled more than 1,000 miles from the Labrador interior or from a series of massive dams on the rivers that flow into James Bay or from any of the two dozen mega hydro stations on the major rivers that flow into the St. Lawrence.
In the last year in Vermont, there has been a tentative revival of the debate over reliance on hydropower from the north, a debate that for a brief period in the early 1990s took center stage in statewide discussions about energy. This revival has been stirred up by the imminent closure of Vermont's 40-year-old nuclear power plant, as well as by the recent decision to renew a 30-year contract between the state's largest utilities and Hydro-Québec. While the debate about the closure of Vermont Yankee has been vigorous and well informed, the discussion of Hydro-Québec has not.
Twenty years ago, Hydro-Québec was the target of high profile campaigns by environmental and human rights groups throughout the eastern United States. Hydro-Québec's proposal to expand the James Bay complex by building two massive hydro complexes on the Great Whale, Nottoway, Broadback, and Rupert Rivers—in the heart of Cree territory—inspired one of the most remarkable grassroots campaigns of the era. There were "Save James Bay" groups and divestment campaigns on almost every college campus in the Northeast and just about every regional environmental group large or small participated in the campaign. Hydro-Québec became a symbol of environmental destruction, associated with images of drowned caribou, dried out river beds, and tiny Cree communities, whose rights were being trounced in the name of "development," living in the shadows of giant dams.
The sheer scale of the James Bay project made it a magnet for criticism. It was made all the more objectionable as the electricity was not needed. Energy analysts like Helen LaJambe in Quebec and Ian Goodman in the United States proved that conservation measures would provide a far more economical and less destructive means of meeting the demand for energy, while creating four times as many jobs.
Hydroelectric development began in the eastern part of Quebec in the 1950s in the territory of the Innu people, the land they call Nitassinan (meaning "our land"). The first projects carried out from beginning to end by Hydro-Québec, after the province nationalized its electric utilities in 1962, were built on the largest rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence—the Bestiamites, Outards, and Manicougan rivers. At approximately the same time, a consortium of public and private companies named the British Newfoundland Corporation Limited, or Brinco, was at work on Churchill Falls. Although Hydro-Québec did not build the Churchill Falls project, it was a part owner of Brinco and was responsible for the transmission. Over the next 30 years, Hydro-Québec proceeded to dam, one by one, all the major rivers that flow east into the great fleuve.
Hydro-Québec is the largest producer of hydropower in the world. Historically, Hydro-Québec has not built dams in response to a demand for electricity. Instead, supply has preceded demand. (A sure way to stimulate demand is to first create a glut of electricity.) In 1967, Bourassa's Liberal party campaigned on the issue of the James Bay project with the promise of creating 10,000 jobs, using a colonialist rhetoric that today sounds chilling: "The conquest of northern Quebec, its rushing, spectacular rivers, its lakes so immense they are veritable inland seas, its forests of coniferous trees…the whole history of Quebec must be rewritten. Our ancestors courage and will must live again in the 20th century. Quebec must occupy its territory; it must conquer James Bay."
Today, Quebec's ever-expanding hydroelectric project remains, fundamentally, a jobs program. In 2010 Hydro-Québec completed its largest project in more than a decade: the 900 MW Eastmain-1 project in Cree territory. This project involved the construction of four dams on the Eastmain (already a ruined river), 72 dikes, and the diversion of the magnificent Rupert River, one of the largest undammed rivers in Quebec. In a strange twist in the history of the environmental movement, Hydro-Québec succeeded in building the 900 MW project without stirring the faintest protest from environmentalists in the United States.
The Paix de Braves agreement between the Cree and the provincial and federal governments was signed in 2002 and ratified by the community in a referendum in which less than half the population voted. The Cree were by no means united in their support for the agreement through which the Cree would earn $70 million a year from the project. At the end of a federal provincial environmental review process, Hydro-Québec was given a list of 97 guidelines to minimize the environmental impacts of the project, all of which are non-binding.
Churchill Falls before the dam
Although some supporters of Hydro-Québec in the United States have expressed their faith in the strength of the regulatory process in Canada, Canadian environmentalists do not share that faith. Daniel Green, a campaigner for the Sierra Club, one of several Canadian environmental groups that opposed the Eastmain project, commented: "The two governments have said, well, we don't really know the impacts and we're asking Hydro-Québec to monitor them and to adapt the project if the impacts become horrendous. It's asking the promoter of the project to admit they've done wrong. It's ridiculous."
Also in the works is the even larger 1,500 MW Romaine project on the north shore on Innu land, which has been ranked by ReNew Canada as the largest construction project in all of Canada (the Eastmain-1 project is number two). Hydro-Québec has concluded its environmental assessment process for the project, which is scheduled to be completed in 2020, and it has reached an agreement with the Innu leaders, who have promised not to challenge the project in exchange for financial compensation. The Romaine is one of the last free flowing Atlantic salmon rivers on the north shore of the St. Lawrence (most of the others have been dammed by Hydro-Québec). It will be turned into a series of four reservoirs with four hydroelectric stations.
The environmental agency BAPE (Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement) has given Hydro-Québec a series of guidelines for minimizing the environmental damage, but again, it is not legally bound by them. Proposed mitigation measures include building platforms for the 97,000 nesting pairs of songbirds counted in the forests that will be submerged beneath the Romaine reservoirs. Hydro-Québec also proposes to create artificial spawning beds in the hopes that the salmon will use them, although this is a highly experimental and untested solution and it is more than likely to fail, just like every other mitigation measure that has been tried to prevent the decline of salmon where their habitat has been destroyed by dams. (Critics call these measures "public relations gimmicks.") In order to mitigate the impact of mercury contamination, the panel recommends that the Innu be educated not to eat fish from the Romaine reservoirs. In this way, according to the BAPE, mercury contamination is not expected to be an issue.
Also looming on the horizon is the Lower Churchill project, a joint proposal by Hydro-Québec and Newfoundland Hydro, which has been kicking around since the early 1970s. In 1998, the premiers of Newfoundland and Quebec staged a joint press conference at Churchill Falls to announce the development of what they boasted would be "the second largest construction project in the world" (after the Three Gorges project in China), a $12 billion, 3,100 MW complex involving dams on Muskrat and Gull Island Rapids, the diversion of the Romaine and Saint Jean rivers, two new high voltage transmission corridors, an underwater transmission cable across the Strait of Belle Isle to Newfoundland, and an additional transmission corridor to deliver power to the United States. But their million dollar media event was upstaged by Innu protesters in what the Montreal Gazette called "the greatest humiliation of [Premier] Lucien Bouchard's career" who had insisted that the project not go forward without their consent.
Last year the Innu Nation signed an agreement with Newfoundland accepting compensation for the future development of the Lower Churchill, though the agreement has yet to be ratified by the Innu community where there is considerable opposition. The agreement includes, at long last, compensation for the Upper Churchill project. Penashuae, who took us down the river in 1998 to protest the project, continues to speak out and rally her community to reject the agreement in an upcoming referendum. Meanwhile, Newfoundland is still embittered over the infamous 1968 agreement by which Quebec receives almost all the electricity produced at Churchill Falls at pre-1970s prices (one quarter of a cent per kilowatt hour). Likewise, Quebec is still embittered by the provincial boundary drawn by the British in 1927, which delivered a large chunk of the Quebec/Labrador peninsula, oddly enough, to Newfoundland. The two provinces continue their squabbles and have yet to come to a final agreement. Yet another hurdle is the wildly expensive proposal to build a transmission corridor across the Strait of Belle Isle (which must be buried under the sea floor because of icebergs) to Newfoundland, which is likely to prove to be economically prohibitive.
While the Innu and the Cree have at last overcome decades of complete government control to at least be recognized, consulted, and compensated when governments and corporations want to use their land, members of these communities I spoke with invariably expressed the belief that the option to reject development projects was never theirs. Nor was it ever a possibility to remain a subsistence culture outside of the money economy, as the technological culture continues to encroach on their psychological and cultural space. "Our children," said Ben Penote, an Innu leader, "are mesmerized by the lights of the dominant culture. They are drawn to it as moths to the flame. For their parent's parents, what the land provided—when it provided—was enough. Today it is not enough. For the dominant culture, there can never be enough."
"Your cities are lit up at night like it were daytime," an Innu elder said to me once. "Don't you have enough electricity?"
Transitional Energy Source
In the 1980s, Jacques Guevremont, Hydro-Québec's Vice President for Export Markets, predicted that the utilities' long-term export contracts would not be renewed. "When the contracts end in 2010, 2015, they will not be renewed," he said. "We will need the power we generate internally. Our neighbors will have to build. Hydroelectricity from Quebec is, in other words, a transitional energy source, something they can use now, deferring investments they would otherwise have to make, buying time to plan for the future."
Vermont's long-term contract with Hydro-Québec had the opposite effect. By flooding the state with a glut of electricity (for almost a decade, Vermont was obligated to buy more power from Hydro-Québec than it could possibly use), energy conservation was discouraged and a complacency arose about the need to develop home grown energy sources. Though fossil fuels will run out, nuclear power plants will have to be retired, and carbon and methane emitting power plants will have to be phased out if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, little if anything was done to prepare for these inevitabilities, aside from implementing some efficiency measures.
At the end of the 2010 legislative session, while Vermont utilities was negotiating a long-term contract with Hydro-Québec, the state legislature voted unanimously to change its definition of "renewable," under pressure from the company. Previously, under Vermont statute, large hydro projects (defined as plants producing over 200 MW) could not qualify as "renewable" sources of energy. When the deal was finalized on August 12, Quebec Premier Charest was quick to exploit the marketing potential of its new "green" stamp of approval from the greenest state in the union: "Today Vermont has one of the cleanest and greenest energy portfolios in America and that is due in large part to Hydro-Québec…. We hope others will see the wisdom of this approach and once again follow the lead of Vermont."Hydro-Québec sees this designation as a low carbon-emitting, renewable source of energy as key to its expansion plans to open new markets in New York and New England. Vermont is currently the only state to consider large hydro to be renewable.
The consequences of large dams are well known. Large hydro projects are the leading cause of the decline of fresh water fish in the world and are known to have significantly disturbed coastal fisheries as well as contributing to deforestation and the accumulation of climate-disrupting greenhouse gases. A recent comprehensive study by researchers at Brazil's National Institute for Space Research estimated that worldwide large dams are responsible for the equivalent of 7.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually if measured over 20 years; that is higher than the carbon dioxide emissions from all the fossil fuel burning in the United States. Studies conducted by Brazilian National Institute for Research in Amazonia have shown that dams in tropical climates can have greenhouse gas emissions up to 26 times higher than equivalent coal burning plants. Additionally, hundreds of millions of people have been displaced by large dam projects all over the world.
More than 60 Inuit & Cree paddles from Montreal to NYC on Earth Day in 1991 to protest Hydro- Québec projected destroying their rivers
The decision by the Vermont utilities, with the approval of the legislature and the governor, slipped past the critics of Hydro-Québec and was finalized virtually without debate. Policymakers and the public in other states who are currently considering Hydro-Québec as a source of electricity will need to be re-educated on the environmental impacts of large dams. Such impacts can remain an abstraction as public officials and utility executives calculate the benefits of imports from the north in terms of price per kilowatt hour or on Enron-style balance sheets in convoluted carbon-trading schemes. A more honest calculation should balance the value of cheap electricity against the value of wild salmon, natural forests, clean, fresh water, and a climate that has allowed human cultures, in all their diversity, to flourish for the last 10,000 years. This, in truth, is the calculation that we unconsciously make every time that we plug in.
Alexis Lathem is a former editor of Nitassinan News, a newsletter on industrial intrusions into the Innu homeland, a freelance writer, award-winning poet, and teacher at the Community College of Vermont.