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My Turn: Quebec hydropower is not green – or clean

PSNH, its parent company Northeast Utilities and Hydro-Quebec would have you believe that hydropower from the James Bay Project is clean, green and renewable. They have impressive public relations departments dedicated to selling this idea. The truth is not so simple.

The scale of the James Bay hydro project is unimaginably huge. Canadian Shield rivers are much larger than any in New England. Phase I of the hydro project entailed multiple dams on the La Grande River, which flows 560 miles east to west into James Bay. The watershed, or drainage area, of the La Grande is larger than the entire area of New England.

Subsequent phases have involved additional watersheds and doubled the flow. The James Bay Project is one of the largest hydropower developments in the world.

Environmental issues have been part of the project from the beginning.

In 1972, a settlement of $225 million was reached with the Cree people, the residents of the area to be developed, over loss of hunting and fishing habitat and access.

In 1989, Maine terminated a $15 billion power purchase contract with Hydro-Quebec.

In 1992, opposition by the Crees and environmental groups resulted in the cancellation of a $12.5 billion power purchase contract by New York State.

In 1994, the Canadian Supreme Court for the first time decreed that environmental assessments of hydropower projects must be conducted.

Subsequently the Great Whale Project, an additional proposed hydro complex north of the La Grande River and flowing into Hudson Bay was canceled.

In 2002, the Province of Quebec, owner of Hydro-Quebec, and Grand Council of the Crees reached a settlement of environmental lawsuits in the amount of $3.4 billion! This settlement canceled an additional James Bay three rivers project but allowed the diversion of the Rupert River, one of the three, into the La Grande watershed.

Flooding behind dams and dikes has covered almost exactly the land area of Connecticut, equivalent to 11 Lake Champlains, forever. Methyl mercury released by bacterial action on millions of tons of flooded vegetation has contaminated the food chain in the James Bay area.

Mercury at the microscopic level works its way up the food chain and concentrates in the fatty tissues of large mammals. Mercury contamination has been implicated in numerous deaths of endangered Beluga whales and fresh water seals. Elevated levels of mercury have been found in the Cree people, who had to stop eating fish they had caught, formerly the staple of their diet.

An ill-timed water release on the La Grande in 1984 resulted in the drowning of 10,000 migrating caribou.

Seasonal freshwater flows into the saltwater of James Bay have been inverted due to seasonal power demands in Quebec – great in winter, low in summer – changing the freeze-up pattern in the bay, with unknown long-range consequences. The growing season in the vicinity of the reservoirs has been shortened.

The James Bay Project was driven by political and economic concerns with near zero concern for environmental impacts. The political principle involved has been characterized as: “First build, then paint green.” It is not a stretch to view James Bay as technology run amok and a man-made environmental disaster zone on a colossal scale.

New England utilities have been buying power from James Bay since the 1980s. NIMBY reluctance to build power plants near where the power is needed in southern New England has made buying power generated 1,000 miles from where it will be used, and in another country, politically attractive. Think “foreign energy dependence.”

The Northern Pass transmission line project has been proposed because New Hampshire stands between the source of the power and its intended users.

The Connecticut legislature has decreed that James Bay power is clean and renewable, paving the way for efforts to overcome New Hampshire opposition to the proposed right-of-way, towers and transmission line travesty.

If the residents of southern New England absolutely cannot take responsibility for their power use and build generating capacity in their own area, then perhaps they should follow the model of Quebec’s dealing with the Crees and settle some amount on New Hampshire – I’m thinking in the billions – for the anguish, inconvenience, damage and potential economic loss they wish to cause.

(Jan Edick, of Littleton, is a former IT employee of the Commonwealth Energy System, NStar, now part of Northeast Utilities.)

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