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Canadian hydropower could come at high cost to tradition

This story is the second part of a seriesfollowing New York's power lines to Canada.  You can read the first part here

People in the energy field often point out in conversation that "renewable" is not synonymous with "green." The mega-dam project proposed for Newfoundland & Labrador could be exhibit A.

The Lower Churchill Project, envisioned for a remote area of a far northern province on Canada's Atlantic coast, could provide large amounts of energy.

That  low carbon power could flow for more than a 100 years, and provide enough capacity to replace dirtier fuels.

But building the dam would also mean making permanent choices about the landscape around it, including flooding that would completely change the local ecosystem. Another, less tangible, toll would be paid culturally.

In this second installment ofour serieslooking at the impact of New York importing Canadian hydroelectricity, we follow the proposed Champlain Hudson Power Express transmission line, from the New York side of the border, to Newfoundland & Labrador.

Last good-bye

As 72-year-old Joe Goudie works on a custom canoe, he talks about his childhood along the Churchill River.

"Leaving in the morning ... the men would take out their 12-gauge shotguns and fire several rounds - sort of the trappers good-bye," he recalls. Goudie comes from a long line of Inuit trappers, who paddled their canoes up Labrador's rivers, to plots of land where they could find furs. 

Each fall, his father and brother, the last trappers in the family working along the Churiver, would leave, returning in the spring. Goudie would fall asleep listening to stories about the river.

"They would come over to the house and get a yarn going with a cup of tea, and probably a pipe, and I'd sit at the side listen to their stories, listen to their conversation," he says.

But now a dam could go up where Goudie's kin fired their good-bye salutes.  

Backed by the provincial power authority, NALCOR Energy, the project would dam two sets of falls mid-river, to produce about 3,000 MW for the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, and for export to places like New York. 

"Create more jobs all around"

Already, plywood signs along the river carry warnings in French, English and two native languages, for people to limit the number of fish they eat. A dam already exists much farther up the river, at the center of a 600-person company town called Churchill Falls. An area roughly the size of Delaware was flooded to build that dam, stirring up mercury deposited in the ground.

If the dam is built, Goudie expects more mercury in the water and fewer fish to catch. And others are worried about the cultural impact of building it.

"[The dam's backers] just don't understand that it is a part of our lives," Daphne Roberts explains, sitting against a friend's picture windows overlooking the river. This tiny, feisty woman is a member of a local group called Grand Riverkeeper, which opposes the project.

"I go sit on the riverbank and listen to the birds singing - I was there just two days ago," says Roberts. "And I said, 'You're not going to get it. We're going to fight it. It's not going to happen'."

Roberts' opposition to the dam comes as this area of Canada's far north is changing dramatically.

In 50 years, Labrador has gone from a place where many homes didn't have electricity, to a place that now has high-speed Internet, where snowmobiles are omnipresent. You get the sense that change has been a little traumatic, and that the river has provided continuity for some residents - which makes the dam a threat.

But others see the dam creating a brighter future for the area. Dave Hunt, the former head of the North Labrador Chamber of Commerce, says he want to see new jobs, in construction, and  selling lunches and office supplies to the engineers that the dam would bring.

"We've exported our talent and now we're going to import it back again," predicts Hunt, referring to the brain drain familiar to many rural quarters of North America. Young people frequently leave Labrador to pursue careers elsewhere, including many former classmates of Brandon Ramey.

Ramey is an ambitious teen who waits tables a couple evenings a week at a restaurant and bar called Maxwell's. He's nearly finished high school in the town of Happy Valley/Goose Bay, and as president of the student council, he's already a practiced speaker.

The dam building project, he says, "will just create more jobs all around and economic development."

But Ramey also acknowledges after making his pitch that maybe he's being "selfish," given that he doesn't have the same relationship with the river that many older people who grew up on it do. He thinks the dam is at the center of a generational divide. 

"An important transition"

Gilbert Bennett heads the project for NALCOR. He's careful to say that the project's implications are bigger than just its effect on the Labrador economy, or its ability to bring more power into the marketplace.

"I think there are broader social, environmental issues that certainly need to be considered," he says tactfully. "Today as a society, both Canada and the U.S. are among the most intense users of energy of any population on the planet."

Bennett argues that clean hydroelectric energy can help eliminate the emissions that contribute to climate change, by replacing the power produced by dirtier plants - especially coal.

"This is an important transition, from society driven by fossil fuels today, to a renewable future," he says.

Opponents to the dam in Labrador say natural gas could be a better alternative to cut carbon emissions. But the irony is, that while the dam is controversial there, gas drilling is controversial across the border in New York. 

And so the debate about who will power whom - and how - continues.

Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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