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Seven years after approval of Muskrat Falls project, draft plans and a lost list

Nalcor vice-president and project lead Gilbert Bennett at the Muskrat Falls site.
Nalcor Energy executive vice-president Gilbert Bennett says the Crown corporation keeps an extensive spreadsheet of its environmental obligations and commitments. - SaltWire Network

Lawyers question government’s Joint Review Panel follow-through

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Environmental reviews for the Muskrat Falls project resulted in a long list of follow-up actions for proponent Nalcor Energy, and there was also follow-up work for the provincial and federal governments.

Nalcor Energy expresses full confidence in its response to date, to recommendations that came out of the environmental assessments.

“First of all, we have a commitment list that tracks our obligations and commitments for both the generation and transmission projects. It’s an extensive spreadsheet, it’s maintained by our environment team and it has approximately 500 action items on it. Some are complete, some are ongoing, some relate to future work and operations,” executive vice-president Gilbert Bennett testified Wednesday at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry.

The company’s list includes notes on the status of the different recommendations and is constantly updated, he said, adding that it provides a quick reference.

The provincial government also had a list, now in evidence, showing the dozens of recommendations in 2011 from the joint federal-provincial review panel (the review for proposed hydro dams at Muskrat Falls and Gull Island).

But officials called to the inquiry last week acknowledged the province’s one-stop list hadn’t been updated since 2014.

“But for the commission asking you for this document, I’m going to suggest to you it wouldn’t be updated,” said NunatuKavut Community Council lawyer Jason Cooke, when questioning the bureaucrats.

Susan Squires, who became head of the environmental assessment division in the Department of Environment and Conservation in 2017, testified follow-up by the province has been ongoing, whatever the state of the list.

There’s been a focus in her department on Nalcor’s response to the conditions established for the project’s release from environmental assessment.

And the full list of panel recommendations was filtered, sending recommendations out to the different departments responsible (a proposed health assessment left to Health, etc.).

In his questions, Cooke highlighted some recommendations still in play. One was for a wetland compensation plan. The federal government was lead, but the province also has a role. A 2012 update noted it wasn’t submitted by Nalcor. And the latest, from May 2019, states a draft plan is now “under review.”

“Is there something particularly about that plan that would require a seven-plus year period to implement?” Cooke asked.

He asked about another recommendation, for a social-effects needs assessment and research for Labrador communities affected by construction. In November 2012, the provincial Health Department was “moving forward” with an assessment.

“Health and Community Services anticipate commencing work on this matter in summer 2019,” reads the June 2019 update. The note was confirmed by the provincial panel. They had no ready explanation for the delay.

Who is tracking the overall response to recommendations from the environmental reviews?

While on the stand, former premier Kathy Dunderdale testified she had never read the report from the Joint Review Panel. She was briefed. And she relied on her ministers to complete the follow-up needed.

In 2012, the cabinet secretariat asked Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs to update the status of the many panel recommendations. It resulted in the notes referenced by Cooke at the inquiry. The same request was made in 2014, explaining why there are notes available from 2014. And in 2015, the government changed hands.

In February 2017, the Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs Office was part of a collection of changes to government departments. There was now an Office of Labrador Affairs, while Aboriginal Affairs merged with Intergovernmental Affairs to create the Intergovernmental and Indigenous Affairs Secretariat.

“A separate Office of Labrador Affairs has been created to help address unique issues and advance social and economic development in the region,” stated a news release at the time.

“The responsibilities associated with both of these offices remain with the premier.”

While the provincial Department of Environment and Conservation has pushed Nalcor on legal requirements, going to different government departments as required, the keeping of the complete list of recommendations from environmental review was with the premier’s office.

Following the announcement of his post-election cabinet on May 20, 2019, Premier Dwight Ball remains the minister responsible for Labrador and Aboriginal Affairs. Ball is scheduled to be called as a witness at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry beginning July 4.

Twitter: @TeleFitz


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