Manitoba Hydro has been rearranging the environment in northern Manitoba for 50 years, diverting a major river, polluting lakes, building dams, flooding land, relocating aboriginal communities, regulating Lake Winnipeg, destroying old ways of life and disrupting wildlife.
And now a massive transmission line — Bipole III — is going to cut a swath from northern Manitoba south to Winnipeg, with consequences that also haven’t been properly studied.
The cumulative effects of developing hydro power have had an enormous impact, yet they have never been assessed as a whole. Instead, Manitoba Hydro has conducted piecemeal research into individual projects, but they haven’t even done that very well, according to the Clean Environment Commission (CEC).
The commission has complained about the province’s poor work in assessing the cumulative impacts of several projects over the years, including the Wuskwatim generation and transmission projects, the Red River Floodway expansion project and the Bipole III transmission project.
But even if Manitoba Hydro had done a credible job on each of the 35 projects it has undertaken in northern Manitoba over the decades, it would not add up to a global study of the cumulative impact of all the disruptions and development.
That’s why several groups, including two northern aboriginal communities, are demanding an environmental assessment of all hydroelectric development in northern Manitoba.
The damage, they say, is not merely historic, it is ongoing in both human and natural terms. Aboriginal people have not recovered from the loss of their traditional way of life, while patterns of wildlife habitat have been altered and destroyed. Hydro has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation, but it cannot reverse history.
Cumulative effects are more than the immediate impact of a particular project on its surroundings. The CEC describes them as “changes to the environment caused by an action in combination with other past, present and future human actions.”
Even small impacts, for example, can add up to significant changes in an ecosystem and socio-economic environment over time, or what the CEC says is “death by a thousand cuts.”
The aboriginal groups say environmental hearings for the Keeyask generating station, which involves another dam on the lower Nelson River, plus roads, transmission lines and assorted infrastructure, should be postponed until an independent agency conducts a full assessment of the total impact of northern development.
The Clean Environment Commission itself has recommended no environmental licences be issued for any northern Hydro project until a regional assessment is conducted into the cumulative effects of development.
That’s a problem for the Selinger government, which once was in a hurry to get through the environmental hearings for Keeyask so a licence could be issued and construction started. Manitoba Hydro says Keeyask and the Conawapa generating stations are needed, the former within the next decade, not only to meet the province’s energy needs, but demands south of the border.
It’s disturbing, meanwhile, that the aboriginal communities, supported by non-profit groups, would prefer the study be conducted by anyone but the Clean Environment Commission, which lost credibility as a non-partisan agency when it recommended a licence for Bipole III, despite finding numerous flaws with the project, including the environmental impact study.
If the Clean Environment Commission has lost the confidence of the very communities it is supposed to represent, then there is a serious problem with the process, which can only be fixed by starting over with a new board.
» A version of this editorial recently appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 23, 2013