Dam Threatens Heart of Canada’s Wilderness

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

By Alliance Romaine

Courtesy of Alliance Romaine
Courtesy of Alliance Romaine

From its watershed on the Québec/Labrador border, the wild and powerful Romaine River sweeps, cascades and surges for 500 spectacular kilometres in a succession of chutes, falls and rapids through primary northern boreal forest and bio-diverse wetlands, then spreads out into the unique Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve before spilling into the Gulf of the St Lawrence on the Lower North Shore east of Havre-Saint-Pierre, a small town of 3,500 people.

Although the magnificent Romaine River is still part of Canada’s wilderness, Hydro-Québec, fully backed by provincial Premier Jean Charest’s Liberal government, is determined to strangle this mighty, untamed river. What is being planned are four large dams with four reservoirs, one to flood an astounding 142.2 km2 (87 mi2) of virgin wilderness; power plants; a 500-kilometre transmission line; construction camps; and 227.2 kilometres of new roads with more than 500 culverts. Clearing and blasting on the Grande Chute, an awesome 90 foot waterfall and site of the first proposed dam (Romaine 1), started this summer for a road that will cross the river in that location. 

The reasons for the provincial hydro utility’s reportedly $6.5 billion proposed Romaine hydroelectric project are as simple and old as human history: money and politics.

Briefly, Charest’s government and Hydro-Québec (a Crown Corporation) are pushing this project for four reasons: to secure the province’s future energy supply; supply Alcan’s and Alcoa’s aluminum smelters with cheap electricity; enrich themselves by exporting the surplus power generated by the complex to Ontario, Eastern Canada, and U.S. northern states; and gain political points with the mostly Parti Quebecois* (PQ) voters in the huge Duplessis electoral riding of which the Lower North Shore is part. This last by creating jobs for workers in the small local communities and making payments totalling $100-million directly to the regional government.

Hydro-Québec has dammed so many rivers in the province since the 1970s that only three of its16 largest rivers still flow freely. The Romaine, whose basin is already accessible by road, is the most powerful of those remaining. It would be the 14th river to be silenced, the surrounding ecosystems annihilated.

The Romaine has already been linked, at least in Hydro-Québec’s eyes, to another hydroelectric project on the Petit Mecatina in the Lower North Shore region. That one  was announced in May 2009. The new transmission lines planned from the Romaine power plants have a carrying capacity of approximately 735 kilovolts, twice that needed for power generated by the Romaine alone, because they would be carrying power from both the Romaine and the Petit Mecatina.

Courtesy of Alliance Romaine
Courtesy of Alliance Romaine
Altogether, the cutlines and new roads for the Romaine project would slice into nearly 730 kilometres of virgin forest, causing habitat fragmentation and exposing the entire region to logging and mining interests as well as continued wildlife poaching. Technical reports about the Romaine territory have already been prepared for mining companies like Medallion Resources Limited in Vancouver (February 2009). (The P.Q. is a provincial political party whose mandate is the separation of Québec from the rest of Canada)

Many North Shore Innu (aboriginals) would be severely affected by the loss of salmon, moose and caribou habitat in the areas slated to be flooded – one of which forms the backbone of traditional Innu territory. The Ekuanitshit community, located only several kilometres from the Romaine, would be particularly hard hit because the salmon is a vital source of food and revenue for them. Another band, the Innu of Uashat Mani-Utenam in Sept Iles which recently filed for a permanent injunction against the dam project, reiterated the Ekuanitshits’concerns about flooding traditional territory.

The Uashat Mani-Utenam community’s stated intention of stopping the project could be a turning point in the battle against Hydro-Québec’s plan. Or not.

Since the early 1970s, Hydro-Québec’s negotations with northern aboriginal communities have focused on its compensation packages, not on whether the aboriginal people have wanted hydroelectric projects to go ahead. It seems that native communities, having been successfully railroaded by Hydro-Québec at the negotiating table and in court for more than 30 years, now believe they have to accept the devastation of their traditional fishing and hunting lands in exchange for the utility’s compensation packages. In fact, the landmark 1973 injunction against the gigantic James Bay hydro project filed on the behalf of the James Bay Cree ended in a $225 million cash exchange for aboriginal land rights.

This has been happening on the Lower North Shore, too. Though members of three (RCM of Minganie, Mingan and  Natashquan) of the four Innu communities contacted by Hydro-Québec seldom even travel into Romaine territory, these communities had accepted its compensation package terms by October 2008. Consequently, the fourth community, Ekuanitshit, came under intense pressure to approve a settlement. Although 52% of its inhabitants had previously opposed the dam project, in March 2009 78% voted for it.

In addition to sustaining the area Innu, the Romaine River and Lower North Shore support significant ecotourism and recreational activities. Briefs presented by concerned groups and individuals at the December 2008 public hearings held jointly by Québec’s Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environment (BAPE) and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) named multiple groups that paddled the river in 2007 and the significantly higher number projected for 2008. They also stressed the burgeoning importance of Québec’s much diminished river wilderness for recreational purposes.

Courtesy of Alliance Romaine
Courtesy of Alliance Romaine
In stark contrast, Hydro-Québec’s self-funded and shamefully inadequate Environmental Impact Study (EIS) fails to mention that more than 30,000 ecotourists and recreational enthusiasts visit the Havre-St Pierre area annually. Furthermore, the study incorrectly dismisses the groups who paddled the Romaine in 2001 and 2004 as being only 1 or 2 boats. It also says, again wrongly, that no canoing/kayaking outfitters use the river. And nowhere does the EIS mention the irreplacable loss of recreational areas as required by sections 2.2.2 and 4.2.2 of the CEAA Guidelines nor does it ensure that rapids, waterfalls, portage trails or campsites would be maintained.

By these and other omissions, Hydro-Québec tacitly refuses to acknowledge the tremendous economic value this undisturbed wilderness has as an ecotourism and recreational destination.

If the provincial utility’s massively destructive hydroelectric project goes ahead, then by the projected completion date of 2020, Hydro-Québec’s four proposed Romaine dams would have blocked the entire river, and the resulting reservoirs drowned 279 square kilometres of first growth forest. Many parts of a complex and undisturbed ecosystem would be savaged, including the magnificent Grande Chute waterfall, Anticosti Island and the Mingan Archipelogo National Park Reserve at the mouth of the Romaine.

Constantly replenished with nutrients and sediments from the Romaine, shaped and re-shaped by sea erosion and the Romaine’s strong currents, this natural wonder of forty interconnected limestone islands, 1000+ granite islets and reefs is home to a rich variety of wildlife including nine species of whales (e.g endangered Humpbacks and the world’s largest mammal- the Blue Whale), seabird colonies (e.g puffins and penguins), seals, dolphins, fish, shellfish, and organisms (plankton, krill, capelin etc.).

But Hydro-Québec’s EIS arrogantly shrugs off the wide-reaching and potentially disasterous effects that reduced and altered nutrient and sediment inputs of a dammed Romaine would have on all this marine life and its habitat. The Canadian Government’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans itself contests Hydro-Québec’s claim there would be no effects on the whales that frequent the Mingan Archipelago.

In its brief presented at the December 2008 hearings, Alliance Romaine, a Québec-based group of 250 members opposing the project, said that loss of extensive wildlife habitat topped its concerns. As well as flooding the habitat of moose, the endangered Woodland caribou (already in dangerous decline throughout its range), and at risk species like the lynx, wolf, wolverine, black bear, peregrine falcon, golden eagle, osprey, and short eared owl among others, it would eradicate the spawning runs and grounds of two kinds of genetically unique Atlantic salmon, already in dangerous decline worldwide. Flooding and change in flow rates of the dammed Romaine would probably drown what few caribou remained after habitat decimation. That’s how 10,000 migrating caribou were drowned on Cree land in 1984 as they tried to cross LaGrande River in the James Bay area. Large migratory bird species could suffer severe losses from collisions with transmission lines and towers.

Additionally, loss of boreal forest, peat deposits and wetlands through flooding, decaying organic matter in flooded areas, as well as construction activities including roads, and transmission line corridor clearing would put millions of tonnes of methane and Co2 into the atmosphere.

Carbon in the atmosphere and mercury in the water. Hydro-electric reservoirs allow the conversion of naturally occurring inorganic mercury into organic methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin. Long term mercury contamination is an important environmental and health issue, particularly for the local and Innu communities. The bio-accumulation of mercury at each level of the food chain can result in mercury levels in fish more than seven times the Canadian marketing limit of 0.05ug/g. Birds, animals, marine life and humans eat those fish. The EIS, however, blatantly ignores the costs of environmental cleanup of toxic pollutants from the dam and reservoir operations.

The four dams planned for the Romaine hydroelectric complex vary in height from 32.7m (105 ft) to 121m (388 ft) and would affect more than 300 km (184 mi) of the Romaine, carving the heart out of this mighty river. The four accompanying reservoirs would range in size from 12km2 to142.2 km2 (87 mi2) for a total reservoir area of 279.2 km2 (170.9 mi2). The complex would have a generating capacity of 1550 MW.

Publicly, the Charest government portrays the Romaine project as a lucrative, ‘green energy’ export opportunity, and a guarantee of the province’s future energy supplies. Ironically, however, the more electricity Québec exported, the less it would have for itself and the less money it would make. Its own EIS states the amount of power that Hydro-Québec could sell at peak consumption hours from 2014 to 2020 is limited, so non-peak prices would almost certainly be lower than the utility’s cost of production.

Two other points that neither the government nor Hydro-Québec seem eager to bring up for discussion are project cost overruns and cheap electricity for aluminum smelters.

As Hydro-Québec projects average 25% in cost overruns, this one could spill over into the $8 billion dollar range. Add on the approximately $2 billion for transmission lines and this province could have yet another exhorbitantly costly tarnished monument to its 1970s hydro-think.

Something else to keep in mind is the back-scratching arrangement between the provincial government - the sole shareholder in Hydro-Québec - and the utility, which pours more cash into government coffers than any other provincial revenue source. The third player in this power set-up is the smelting industry. Giant aluminum smelters Alcan and Alcoa have been long term beneficiaries of Hydro-Québec’s stranglehold on electrical production in the province, paying an average of only 4.57 cents/kilowatt-hour. This is less than half Hydro-Québec’s estimated cost of 9.2 cents/kilowatt hour for electricity produced by the four planned dams on the Romaine River. Recent agreements between the Québec government and the aluminum titans include hundreds more cut-rate megawatts in exchange for the industry investing in their existing Québec facilities, and maintaining jobs.

Yet some economists have contended the Québec economy loses on these bargain sales to large industrial customers. Université Laval economists Jean-Thomas Bernard and Gérard Bélanger argued in an article published in 2008 that, “under the current regime, a job in a new aluminum smelter or an expansion project costs the province between C$255,357 and C$729,653 a year, when taking into consideration the money that could be made by selling the excess electricity on the New York market.”1

The need to wipe out yet another major river ecosystem would disappear if smelters and other big industries, as well as residential customers paid the real cost of the electricity they use. Québecers are the biggest consumers of elecricity in Canada; this government should be financing more alternative and environmentally benign energy projects in urban areas.

Such alternatives to the massive Romaine project do exist with small-scale hydro and wind turbine projects. The Cartier Wind Energy company, for eg, has contracts with Hydro-Québec to produce 740 of wind power in rural southeastern Québec. Yet this is only a fraction of the 4,000 MW the government has committed to develop by 2015,2 a ludicrously amount of Québec’s estimated 100,000 megawatts of wind generation potential.

Québec’s blasé attitude towards developing alternative energy sources is underscored in another government publication, Québec Energy Strategy 2006-2015,  clearly the province痴 goal of resuming and accelerating the pace of hydroelectric development.3

Measures to reduce/avoid GHG emissions outlined in a separate document, "2006-2012 Québec Action Plan on Climate Change."4  According to that document, planned hydroelectric projects like the Romaine and Petit Mecatina will cut almost 3 megatonnes of GHG emissions annually. Conveniently omitted is the fact that dam construction and related activites could release at least this much carbon into the atmosphere.

Alliance Romaine’s brief further points out “Other impacts can be expected to result from disturbance (human encroachment, construction activities such as use of explosives and helicopters), from the use of herbicides in transmission line corridors and from potential pollution from construction activities (fuel spills, generation of air borne fine particulates etc.”).5

It’s the same old, same old - reinforce Québecers’ wasteful consumer energy habits, generate more wealth for Hydro-Québec, and hold onto political power in the next provincial election - recycled in today’s politically correct parlance of “green energy.”

But the environmental, social, economic, recreational and spiritual costs of this project are real and indefensible.

The Romaine still flows freely; let’s keep it alive.

More information: 

1. Bernard, Gérard (April 2008). "Coût économique de l'électricité vendue aux nouvelles alumineries" (in French) (pdf). Policy Options 29 (4): pp. 56-58. ISSN 0226-5893 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydro-Quebec
2.  Government of Quebec (June 2008). “2006-2012 Action Plan Quebec and Climate Change A Challenge for the Future” (pdf). pp. 19, 2.1, 2.1.1 Energy   
3. Government of Quebec (June 2007). “Using Energy To Build the Quebec of Tomorrow Québec Energy Strategy 2006-2015.” Highlights on Energy. Hydroelectricity (pdf). Ressources naturalles et faune Développement durable, Environnement et Parcs Quebec
4. of Quebec (June 2008). “2006-2012 Action Plan Quebec and Climate Change A Challenge for the Future” (pdf). pp. 18, 2.1, 2.1.1 Energy
5. Romaine (November 2008). : In Opposition to the Romaine River Hydro-
Electric Mega Project. Presented to the BAPE


Useful links:

Report 256 Romaine River Hydroelectric
Complex Development Project
Investigation and Public Hearing Report TRANSLATION February 2009    http://www.ceaa-acee.gc.ca/050/documents/34664/34664E.pdf


Who to contact to protest against the Romaine dam project:

Alliance Romaine

Government of Québec:
Serge Simard  for Natural Resources and Wildlife/ Minister responsible for the Ce-Nord region, Saguenay豊ac-Saint-Jean region
5700, 4e Avenue Ouest, A 308          
Québec (Québec) G1H 6R1
Téléphone : 418 643-7295
Téléphone : 418 643-4318

The Honourable Gail Shea
House of Commons
Minister of Fisheries and Oceans
Parliament Buildings, Wellington Street
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1A 0A6
Email: Min@dfo-mpo.gc.ca (please include your postal code/ email address)
river foundation (foundation-rivieres)  www.fondation-rivieres.org
Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF)
and the Fédération québécoise pour le saumon atlantique (FQSA)

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Club d’ornithologie de la Côte-Nord
Nature Québec conservons@naturequebec.org

Les AmiEs de la Terre de Québec

A partial list of BAPE participants with contact information where available :

Alliance Romaine

River Foundation (foundation-rivieres)

Atlantic Salmon Federation (ASF)
and the Fédération québécoise pour le saumon atlantique (FQSA)

Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

Club d’ornithologie de la Côte-Nord
Nature Québec conservons@naturequebec.org

Les AmiEs de la Terre de Québec

Green Party of Canada and Green Party of Quebec

Association des pêcheurs de Havre-Saint-Pierre
Corporation Nishipiminan