Update: Namakan River Dam Project

High Falls on the Namakan River. Photo courtesy of Rainy Lake Conservancy.
High Falls on the Namakan River. Photo courtesy of Rainy Lake Conservancy.

The Spring 2008 issue of Wilderness News covered a proposed dam at High Falls on the Namakan River west of Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario. A project with environmental impacts on both sides of the border, the Ojibway Power and Energy Group (OPEG) is preparing to release its Environmental Assessment as part of a proponent-led approval process. Here, we look at what “proponent-led” means, how environmental groups on both sides of the border have united to oppose the dam and how the public can stay informed and involved in the project’s outcome.

Proponent Led System

According to Canadian law, the proposed Namakan power project is subject to a proponent-led approval process. Dale Gilbert, Environmental Project Coordinator with OPEG partner The Chant Group is overseeing the Namakan River Project. He explained that instead of the government to dedicating extensive time and money to assess potential projects, the onus lies with the proponent to arrange and pay for impact studies and compile a Class Environmental Assessment to provide a high level picture of the dam’s environmental impact.

This sounds straightforward, but it is worth noting that Canada’s legal definition of “environment” casts a broad net. Air, land and water—what many typically think of as the environment—comprise the first category out of several that must be taken into account. A report must also consider plant and animal life (including human); social, economic or cultural consequences for affected community; buildings or structures; and even results like vibration or noise. When the report is submitted for approval, the director of the Environmental Assessment Approvals Branch will evaluate the overall balance of all of these potential impacts, stopping the project, requesting individual assessments (further studies regarding particular aspects of the project) or letting the project proceed.

According to Gilbert, anticipating what can stop a project is a hard thing to predict.

Balancing the Big Picture

“For the Namakan River project, it is a balance of benefits and adverse effects. It is a challenge to answer what would stop the project because politically, we don’t know what the government is looking for,” Gilbert said.

He can hypothesize that the passage of the Green Energy Act suggests the Canadian government is interested in the development of more green energy. And in this project in particular, the potential benefits for indigenous communities—in generating jobs and an economic boost for the Lac la Croix First Nations communities—will likely play a role in the project’s approval process.

“The Government has an understanding or agreement with the Lac la Croix First Nations to improve the social and economic conditions of their community. On a scale of positive and negative, that would be weighted very heavily,” Gilbert said.

It’s a potential impact that no one takes lightly. In May of 2009, seven Minnesota and Ontario organizations joined Voyageurs National Park Association in sending a joint letter to Canadian and U.S. officials opposing the dam based on the aesthetic and environmental consequences for the region.

They citied concerns regarding the alteration of the “historical character of the Namakan River, a traditional fishing ground for First Nations and part of the trade route of the Voyageurs” and impacts on “the migration and spawning cycles of the river’s sturgeon fishery (a Species of Special Concern in Ontario and Minnesota) as well as potentially impairing water quality throughout the Lake of the Woods and Rainy River watersheds.” Yet as they raised their concerns, the group also addressed the needs of First Nations Communities, requesting that the assessment process consider alternatives to the dam that provide comparable or greater benefits.

“We are sensitive to the challenges First Nations communities face with limited opportunities for economic development. If we raise concerns we really need to think about alternatives,” VNPA Executive Director Cory McNulty recently shared with Wilderness News.

With proponents and opponents alike acknowledging the complexities of the project’s reach, OPEG has made efforts to implement the environmental assessment process in a way that allows them to be fully addressed.

Making Room for Discussion

“Because this is a sensitive issue, we decided to offer a longer period of time for comments,” Gilbert said. OPEG is working to produce a draft report by the end of July or early August, followed by a 60-day public review period. Documents will be made available at libraries and Ministry offices in Thunder Bay, Fort Francis and other communities, as well as online on OPEG’s web site. In addition, open houses will be held for public comment and discussion. OPEG will then have 30 days to compile and document feedback, revise the environmental assessment and, if necessary, revise the project plan before submitting it for an additional review period of 30-days. This review will be open to the public and the government, after which the document will be finalized and sent to the EAAB for approval. Gilbert anticipates that it will be October before the process is complete.

International Approach

Understanding this review process and determining the best way to address concerns has perhaps been the biggest challenge for environmental groups like VNPA and those who signed onto the letter. Used to working directly with government agencies, groups on both sides of the border have worked together to identify the appropriate officials to contact and avenues of communication. On one hand, it has been a unique opportunity to build upon relationships formed through the Heart of the Continent Partnership, an organization dedicated to building connections and shared understanding among stakeholders of all viewpoints in the Quetico and Boundary Waters region. McNulty acknowledges that there is a distinct advantage to working as a group.

“There is more knowledge in groups. I feel uncomfortable with my knowledge of the process [in Canada]. I can take a leadership role on this side [of the border] but have to rely on [Canadian groups] for their knowledge,” McNulty said.

Yet as responsive as officials have been to the letter, VNPA and others are being directed to share their views directly with OPEG as soon as possible. Because OPEG is required by law to respond, voicing them early will help ensure that they get addressed in earlier drafts of the report. As McNulty prepares to pass on the concerns expressed in their original letters, other organizations like Quetico Superior Foundation are formally declaring their opposition to the dam as well.

In the meantime, groups in favor of and against the dam await the draft of the environmental assessment, hoping that—for the sake of the project and its environmental, social and economic consequences—the review period will be one of active discussion to determine the best outcome for all involved.

For More Information on the Namakan River Project:

The Quetico Superior Foundation formally opposes the proposed dam >

Download the print edition of Wilderness News Summer 2009 PDF >

By Alissa Johnson, Wilderness News Contributor

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