Task force encourages discussion on environmental effects of dams

New website promotes public discourse

Will Braun, a member of the Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development, says there needs to exist a space where the public can consider and discuss Hydro damming systems and their effects. Cindy Titus

A group of varying faiths are banding together on the Internet to create discussion on Manitoba Hydro’s environmental impact.

Interfaith Task Force on Northern Hydro Development’s new website, Energy Justice (http://energyjustice.mcc.org), is built to encourage more public discourse on the implications of energy consumption and damming systems in Manitoba, despite Manitoba Hydro’s assertions that they are up front about the potential damage.

The Interfaith Task Force was formed in the early 1970s when Manitoba Hydro began its first Northern Manitoba development projects. This includes activation of the Nelson River direct current line – now an important source of energy for the province.

The organization is funded by, and composed of, volunteers from various religion-based groups such as the Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg and United Church of Canada, Conference of Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario and All Native Circle Conference, among others.

The group is primarily concerned with the environmental and communal effects of Hydro’s damming systems.

Will Braun, a member of the Task Force, says there needs to exist a space where the public can consider and discuss Hydro damming systems and their effects.

“The agenda (of the site) is two-fold,” said Braun. “To educate people on what is happening at the northern end of the transmission and to try and model a less polarized form of public debate.”

Braun says opinions on Hydro are divided into two extremes – either good or bad. According to the Energy Justice website, this sort of discourse encourages argument, but not problem solving.

The site aims to encourage solution-oriented discussion as an alternative, according to Braun.

Glenn Schneider, head of public affairs for Hydro, says that more public discussion may be unnecessary.

“I think it’s widely understood what the impacts are,” said Schneider. “I think the public is more aware than they (Interfaith Taskforce) give them credit for.”

Kevin Hoffman, who worked near Nelson River as a summer student technical assistant, agrees.

“Hydro is honest about the problems they cause,” he said. “You can find all this information on their website.”

Schneider also states that Energy Justice often reiterates much of the information Hydro puts forward to the public.

“We found much of the site’s material to be cognizant of the effort that Hydro has been putting into northern development,” he said.

In the 1960s, Hydro was not required to consider environmental or communal effects of projects. Now, environmental regulations require studies of water quality, fish health and other environmental impacts to take place before a new damming project is considered.

However, Braun says there are still vast environmental implications of northern Hydro projects.

“There is an ongoing and severe widespread environmental damage in the North as a result of Hydro development,” he said. “Eroding shorelines, sediment-laden waters—serious impacts on wildlife.”

Braun adds that there has never been a comprehensive study or assessment of the environmental effects of projects.

However, Schneider says it is difficult to complete such a study. Environmental reviews start with a base study of what an environment looks like without human interference – a sort of reference point.

As there were no such environmental regulations in the early ‘70s, Hydro has no way of telling what northern Manitoba looked like before they started building dams.

“There is a wish that we could have such an environmental review, but we have no basis,” he said. “We don’t really know what the original conditions were.”

Published in Volume 65, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 17, 2011)

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