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Labrador activist repeats concerns at Muskrat Fall Inquiry

Roberta Benefiel, representing Grand Riverkeeper Labrador and the Labrador Land Protectors, pauses for a photo prior to her testimony at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Thursday at the Beothuck Building in St. John’s.
Roberta Benefiel, representing Grand Riverkeeper Labrador and the Labrador Land Protectors, pauses for a photo prior to her testimony at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Thursday at the Beothuck Building in St. John’s. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Labrador Land Protectors, Grand Riverkeeper Labrador representative tells inquiry about challenge of Muskrat Falls review, follow-up

Roberta Benefiel of the Grand Riverkeeper Labrador and Labrador Land Protectors once again voiced the concerns of the grassroots groups in relation to the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project on Thursday.

Benefiel’s comments on the stand at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry were just one aspect — there were also exhibits, a collection of supporting documents and a more than 60-page written submission about a history of involvement with the project and topics from methylmercury to fears of a failure in the North Spur (the land narrowing the Churchill River at the project site, subject to extensive “stabilization” work).

“In our view, provincial and federal politicians have sacrificed the sustainability of the province’s natural capital in exchange for short-term economic gains, and economic gains for the province that may in fact never be realized,” read the submission, now available online.

Benefiel and others have been challenging what exactly a development on the lower Churchill River would mean for local residents for decades, and have been involved with Muskrat Falls since it entered environmental assessment. Building organization, seeking standing at formal reviews and funding for groundwork, the group has struggled at times. Information was not always readily accessible, Benefiel said, and there was always a feeling they were not being heard.

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John Hogan, lawyer for the consumer advocate, asked about the pre-sanction period.

“Having now gone through the (review) process — you put a lot of time, and effort, and money into it, you and your group. Do you feel looking back on it, it was a foregone conclusion? And that the decision was made before the participation of the Joint Review Panel took place?” he asked.

“Absolutely,” Benefiel answered, without hesitation.

Nalcor Energy responded on each of the issues raised in environmental review, and the joint review panel made recommendations, incorporating evidence presented.

But Benefiel said there were shortcomings in her view, and the view of members in both groups.

They remain unsatisfied with the response since, and disappointed the project proceeded at all.

“I think people are defeated. It’s a David and Goliath situation. You know, people who work full-time jobs and have children and houses to look after, they don’t have the time to get involved in these things,” she said, highlighting the volunteer hours put in, trying to understand and respond to concerns.

In his interpretation of the terms of reference for the inquiry, Commissioner Richard LeBlanc said he would look to establish what environmental review work was undertaken, but would not investigate “correctness.” He said Nalcor’s adherence to environmental permits would only be relevant under the terms issued if there was a failure to comply with permits, contributing to an escalation in costs, or a delay in construction.

Once excused, Benefiel was asked how important it was to have the inquiry and tell the story of Muskrat Falls from the point of view of the Grand Riverkeeper Labrador and Labrador Land Protectors.

“It’s super important. We asked for it so many times we’re blue in the face,” she said, adding the group is still trying to engage others. They persist on their points.

“We intuitively knew that environmental issues, they wouldn’t be the ones that people looked at, especially because we’re way up there in Labrador, and there are only 26,000 of us and the island of Newfoundland needed power,” she said.

LeBlanc was attentive to her throughout, she noted. And he wasn’t the only one, with group members and supporters following via livestream.

“You should see my phone,” she said with a quick laugh, touching her hand to a Labrador flag dangling around her neck.

Philip Raphals from the Helios Centre, who has acted as a consultant for the members of the Labrador Land Protectors and Grand Riverkeeper in their efforts, was on the stand Thursday afternoon. Raphals’ testimony was not finished during the day and he is expected back on Friday for cross-examination.

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