In Québec, it’s power versus a people on hydroelectricity
BAIE-COMEAU, Québec — Deep beneath a granite mountain in the vast, snow-covered wilds north of the Saint Lawrence River, a frigid torrent surges through a massive, man-made tunnel, its white water propelling eight powerful turbines that generate electricity for hundreds of thousands of people.
Within two years, a significant amount of that power, along with hydroelectricity from other plants in this Canadian province, could be exported to Massachusetts, providing the state with a long-awaited influx of renewable energy.
This week, state officials are expected to announce whether they intend to buy more hydropower as part of the Baker administration’s energy plan. But in and around this old paper mill town about 400 miles northeast of Montreal, the indigenous peoples of the region harbor major concerns about the environmental impact of the project, complicating the quest for climate-friendly power.
State energy officials are considering six bids for renewable energy projects that would produce enough electricity to power about a million homes, enabling Massachusetts to reduce its carbon emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, as required by state law.
Three of those bids are for lucrative long-term contracts from Hydro-Québec, a government-owned company that generated $13.3 billion in revenue in 2016 from its immense system of 63 dams and 27 reservoirs, many of which were built amid great controversy. By some estimates, the contract with Massachusetts, which would run for 20 years, could be worth $12 billion.
But those bids have thrust Massachusetts into a long-running dispute between the power company and the region’s indigenous peoples, some of whom have accused Hydro-Québec of “cultural genocide” and damaging rivers that have been vital to their economy and traditions for generations.
“Hydro-Québec has destroyed our territories,” said Chief René Simon of the Pessamit, an indigenous group of the Innu nation whose ancestral lands are now the source of nearly one-third of the company’s hydropower. “I would advise the governor of Massachusetts not to buy the power from Hydro-Québec.”
Officials at Hydro-Québec acknowledge the concerns of the Pessamit, and after years of protests, the company’s chief executive in December welcomed Simon to his office in Montreal. The two agreed to a series of negotiations in hopes of settling the Pessamit’s longstanding claims against Hydro-Québec, which include multimillion-dollar lawsuits against the company.
Company officials maintain that a deal to sell Massachusetts an additional 1,200 megawatts of power — a tiny percentage of Hydro-Québec’s overall capacity — would have little to no impact on the Pessamit.
They also note that they have previously sought to accommodate the group’s concerns, both historical and environmental, by agreeing to share profits from one of their power stations on Pessamit ancestral lands, providing them with grants, and spending years trying to reduce the damage their dams inflict on salmon.
“Hydro-Québec categorically refutes the allegations of the Innu of Pessamit, who claim that increasing our exports will adversely affect [their rivers],” said Lynn St-Laurent, a spokeswoman for the company.
She has called claims of cultural genocide “offensive,” adding they “couldn’t be further from reality.”
“Over the past 40 years, Hydro-Québec has diligently consulted the native population for all of our production and transmission projects, including the Pessamit,” St-Laurent said.
In Massachusetts, Baker administration officials declined to comment on whether they’re considering the concerns of indigenous groups in choosing a bid. The other bids include proposals by National Grid to import wind power from Québec and by Emera to build a power line beneath the ocean, from New Brunswick to Plymouth.
“All proposals are evaluated for their environmental impacts, including the extent to which a project demonstrates that it avoids or mitigates, to the maximum extent practicable, impacts to natural resources,” said Peter Lorenz, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Energy and Environ-mental Affairs.
“Ultimately, permitting decisions are up to the local governing authorities,” he added.
At the heart of the conflict between the Pessamit and Hydro-Québec is the health of the Betsiamites River, an important spawning area for salmon. For thousands of years, the Pessamit have used special nets to catch the migratory fish, which have been vital to their diet and central to their culture.
The meandering, cliff-lined river, however, is now the site of two major hydropower plants, including the first one built by Hydro-Québec. That plant, known as Bersimis-1, is a marvel of 1950s engineering. It features two enormous dams that flooded a vast, wooded area to create a 290-square-mile reservoir, which feeds the stored water into a 7.5-mile underground tunnel and stirs eight turbines built beneath a nearby mountain.
At least twice a day, as millions of Québécois awake in the morning and return home in the evening, plant operators cater to spikes in electricity demand by altering the flow of water into the river. Such changes raise and lower the river by about 5 feet, an unnatural process that has had a significant ecological impact on the Betsiamites.
“There is no salmon habitat in the world subject to such water-level variation,” said Louis Archambault, a political consultant representing the Pessamit in negotiations with Hydro-Québec.
As a result, he and others said, the river’s clay banks have steadily eroded, spreading a fine silt that has destroyed many spawning grounds. Faster currents have also washed away salmon nests, while low river levels have dried up others, they said.
In the 1940s, before the dams were built, the Pessamit say they regularly caught about 1,200 salmon a year. Last year, they caught just 56. Since 1992, they have caught an average of 170 a year, the Pessamit say.
“We’re very concerned for the future of salmon,” said Andre Cote, a biologist for the Pessamit, who have about 4,000 members left in the region.
While the dams have made the Betsiamites less welcoming to salmon, which migrate between the sea and the river, there are other reasons for their decline.
Overfishing has been such a significant problem that the Canadian government banned commercial fishing for salmon in 2000. The recreational catch and fishing by indigenous groups, such as the Pessamit, have also contributed to the problem.
Warming waters related to climate change have also been identified as a threat to the region’s salmon, which have been listed as a species of “special concern” by Fisheries and Oceans Canada, a federal agency. Over the past three generations of salmon that inhabit the waters near Baie-Comeau, the population has declined by about a quarter.
Officials at Hydro-Québec also note that they spent millions of dollars between 1999 and 2010 working with the Pessamit on a salmon restoration project. During that time, the number of large salmon returning to the Betsiamites more than doubled, they said.
“A committee of independent experts recognized that the program enabled significantly higher salmon returns and underscored how important it was for the community of Pessamit to follow a fishing plan to ensure the long-term maintenance of a salmon population in the river,” St-Laurent said.
While Pessamit officials found the results of the restoration project “encouraging,” they felt abandoned after Hydro-Québec shuttered the program. The company is now blaming the victims, they say.
“It is immoral and disdainful to blame people living under the poverty line for the precarious salmon situation on the Betsiamites,” Archambault said. “The members of the community are not the ones who built and operate for peak-demand power stations on the Betsiamites.”
The Pessamit now worry that greater exports of hydropower to New England could further endanger the river. The plants on the Betsiamites, they note, are among only a few in Hydro-Québec’s system that can provide additional power when there’s greater demand, especially during cold spells or heat waves.
They fear that the company will rely on those plants more often to accommodate the energy needs of Massachusetts, requiring operators to raise and lower the river levels more frequently. They also worry that the company will increase water levels in its reservoirs, making the rugged, often ice-encrusted lands where they hunt caribou and trap beavers more vulnerable to flooding.
There’s reason for their concern. In October, during a heavy rainstorm, Hydro-Québec released an unprecedented amount of water from the reservoirs that feed into the Betsiamites, which the Pessamit say damaged salmon spawning grounds and flooded six of their traditional camps.
They accused the company of endangering their people by overfilling the reservoirs, arguing that they did it to demonstrate that Hydro-Québec has more than enough capacity to comply with Massachusetts’s requirements. The reservoirs should have been prepared to cope with such a storm, especially given the relatively little rain earlier in the year, they said.
“This is the type of management we are up against,” said Simon, the Pessamit chief, in a statement at the time. “While Hydro-Québec is discharging its reservoirs, it’s also abandoning all precautions.”
Hydro-Québec officials insist that they already have a surplus of energy and that there would be no reason to rely exclusively on the plants along the Betsiamites or change water levels more frequently. The energy sent to Massachusetts could come from anywhere on their grid, they said.
They also challenge the allegation that they overfilled their reservoirs, which they said were at typical levels for that time of year. The reason they had to be drained quickly was because the region received nearly six times more rainfall than usual for late October, when the region typically gets snow instead of rain.
“That was far more rain than we were prepared for,” said Sébastien Lévesque, the region’s chief of engineering for Hydro-Québec. “Climate change is now more real than ever. We’re going to have to be very careful with our predictions for the future.”
Over the coming weeks, negotiators from Hydro-Québec and the Pessamit are scheduled to discuss a range of other issues, including historical grievances that led the tribe to file a $500 million lawsuit against the company, province, and federal government.
The Pessamit have long felt ignored, especially while other indigenous groups have reached substantial financial settlements with the government.
In interviews with the tribe’s elders in front of a senior official from Hydro-Québec, the Pessamit explained their sense of loss and how their lives, and their children’s lives, have changed irrevocably.
“There’s a deep sadness,” said Joseph Louis Vachon, 75, who once lived as a nomad. “I lost my way of life, and we lost our territory.”
Marie Anne Hervieux, 77, worried about what her grandchildren will know of their culture. “Whatever happens, Hydro-Québec won’t be able to give us back our way of life.”
Daniel Lauzon, the director of aboriginal affairs and lead negotiator for Hydro-Québec, heard the elders’ stories and said he hoped they could find common ground.
“We’re serious about the relationship we want to establish with the Pessamit,” Lauzon said. “We don’t want to disagree with the aboriginal community. We want to build a good relationship.”
But many of the Pessamit remain unconvinced.
They worry that Hydro-Québec is just trying to placate them until officials in Massachusetts announce their decision.
Even more, they worry that the negotiations will end if the company fails to win the contract.
“What’s going to happen to us after that?” Simon said. “We have little reason to trust them.”