Rhode Island is interested in the Canadian hydro project because of the state's chronically high energy costs, said Chafee's deputy communication officer, Christian Vareika. Both businesses and residents have been pushing for cheaper energy, and the Lower Churchill Project could offer a less expensive and more sustainable solution.
"The governor is interested in finding more affordable renewable energy," said Vareika. "This project is one of the largest in North America, so it's capable of producing a lot of power, but also in a clean fashion."
Clean energy, but some cost to the environment?
While hydroelectricity is one of the most sustainable sources of energy, the process of damming a river and flooding other lands can be highly destructive. When the large-scale Lower Churchill Project was first proposed, a number of factors triggered mandatory environmental review. The Joint Review Panel formed in 2009 released its findings just last month.
According to the panel's report, "the Project would have several significant adverse environmental effects on the aquatic and terrestrial environments." Notably, the panel found that Nalcor did not complete a sufficient assessment of the amount of mercury the project would accumulate. It states that some members of the public were particularly concerned about the contamination of fish and seal, which could lead to food consumption advisories. The panel also found that changes in sediment, nutrient supply and water temperatures could have negative effects downstream in the area of Goose Bay.
Federal and provincial environment ministers are now reviewing the report before a bill to approve or reject the project passes through the chambers of Parliament. The government will consider both environmental and socioeconomic factors in making its decision. Bennett said he expects a verdict by the end of the year.
In the meantime, a major boost for the project came from the Innu Nation of Labrador, an aboriginal group whose consent was required under the constitution. After months of negotiations with the province and Nalcor, in the early hours of July 1, the Innu board members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a three-pronged agreement that supports the Muskrat project.
"Certainly aboriginal support has been a major issue for hydro development in Canada," said Bennett. "So we're delighted the agreement we have with the Innu Nation was ultimately ratified by the people."
Looking 7 generations ahead
The New Dawn agreement ensures that the Innu nation gets "first strike" capability to bid on construction contracts, said Grand Chief Joseph Riche. It also gives the community 5 percent of the Muskrat operation from the day it begins, which would increase once the site is operating at full capacity. Income for the Innu will never drop below $5 million a year, said Riche.
Another part of the deal compensates the Innu for the flooding of their burial sites and hunting grounds during the construction of the original Churchill Falls Hydro Dam. The third element secures lands and resources for the Innu. While the details of some land claims are still being negotiated, the deal has been approved and will be signed at an official ceremony in October.
Despite the many upsides, the Innu board members' decision to support the project wasn't easy, said Riche. The Innu, who have lived along the Churchill River for generations, had difficulty agreeing to block the river, knowing that animals and their natural habitat would be harmed.
"They knew by damming the river they would hurt the environment, but the decision they made when they said yes was because of their grandchildren, because of job security and other programs," he said. "You're being asked to let go of something in exchange for something your grandchildren will have."