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The banks of the Grand River, downstream from the planned Lower Churchill Project. Some local residents think the project could produce lower water levels, endangering fishing and other traditional pastimes.  Emma Jacobs / WRVO
The banks of the Grand River, downstream from the planned Lower Churchill Project. Some local residents think the project could produce lower water levels, endangering fishing and other traditional pastimes. Emma Jacobs / WRVO

Canadian hydro would come at a price

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Yesterday, we brought you our first story on the pros and cons of increasing new York's imports of hydro power generated on Canada's northern rivers.

Today we go to the source: the Churchill River. Innovation Trail reporter Emma Jacobs visited the site of a proposed plan that might send more power our way from the Canadian provinces of Newfoundland & Labrador. As Jacobs reports, the dam could create jobs there, and send more renewable here, but at a price.

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Canoemaker Joe Goudie has paddled down the Churchill River 22 times. He has concerns about environmental costs that could come with a new dam on the river. Emma Jacobs / WRVO

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Joe Goudi is working on a wood and canvas canoe, the kind that generations of his family paddled down Labrador’s rivers to reach their trapping grounds. His father and brother trapped on the Churchill River, heading north each fall.

“When they were leaving in the morning, the men would take out their twelve-gauge shotguns and fire several rounds, sort of the trappers goodbye I guess, you know ‘we’ll see you when we get back.’”

Once they came back Gaudi would fall asleep listening to stories about the river.

“They’d come over to the house and they’d get a yarn goin with a cup of tea, you know, and probably a pipe and I’d sit by the side and listen to their stories, listen to their conversation.”

The Lower Churchill dam project would start where those men said their goodbyes.

The backer is the energy company, NALCOR Energy. NALCOR wants to dam two sets of falls to produce about 3000 MW for the province of Newfoundland & Labrador, and for export to places like New York.  With the flooding, Goudi expects more mercury in the water and fewer fish.

But when you talk with a lot of the people concerned about those changes, many—not just Gaudi—bring up their parents. 

“They just don’t understand that it is a part of our lives.”

Daphne Roberts joined a local group called Grand Riverkeeper that opposes the project.

This area of Canada’s far north has changed a lot. In fifty 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. The river seems to provide some continuity people like.

“I go and sit on the riverbank and listen to the birds singing. I was up there just only two days ago and I stood on the riverbank and said, ‘you’re not going to get it. We’re gonna fight it. Its not going to happen.”

But others see the dams creating a brighter future for the area. These people say they want jobs. They want to sell office supplies to the engineers. They want to keep kids in the region, like the classmates of Brandon Ramey. Ramey waits tables a couple evenings a week at a restaurant and bar called Maxwell’s.
He’s president of the student council at his high school in the town of Happy Valley/Goose Bay.

“It’ll just create more jobs all-around and more economic development,” Ramey says.

But Ramey acknowledges that maybe he’s being selfish. But he says he doesn’t have the same relationship with the river as older people who grew up on it.

Gilbert Bennett heads the project for NALCOR and says the project’s implications are bigger than just bringing more power into the marketplace.

“Today, both Canada and the U.S. are among the most intense users of energy of any population on the planet.”

Bennett argues that there will be local impacts but hydro-generated energy is clean, can replace coal and eliminate the emissions from dirtier plants that contribute to climate change.

“This project is an important transition from a society that’s driven by fossil fuels today, to a renewable future.”

Opponents to Bennett’s plan say natural gas could be a better alternative to cut emissions. But the irony is, that while the dam is controversial in Labrador, gas drilling is controversial in New York. They’re two conflicts that will play out simultaneously, as both places decide who will power who — and how.

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