Hope and fear in Labrador as Muskrat Falls hydro project ramps up

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – There was a time when Mayor Leo Abbass knew almost everyone in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, a subarctic town of about 7,600 people near the mouth of Labrador’s Churchill River.

Those days are gone. The Muskrat Falls hydro project is ramping up and will bring thousands of jobs, spinoffs and a spike in construction work to the region. That buzz of activity will peak in 2015, two years before the dam is to produce first power.

It’s a welcome economic injection but it comes with fears of uncertainty and change, including demands on local services and the potential for increased crime, Abbass said.

“Most of the faces I see are new faces,” he said of how the recent influx of Muskrat Falls workers has already changed his town.

“Even our grocery store … we seem to be running out of fresh fruit and different things like that. I guess the ordering for them has had to change to keep up with the demand.”

The $7.7-billion project to bring power from the scenic falls on the lower Churchill River to Newfoundland then Nova Scotia is the biggest thing to hit Happy Valley-Goose Bay.

“One time, you know, I went into an establishment of any sort, whether it be a grocery store, a drug store, a hardware store, I pretty well knew everybody who was there,” Abbass said. “Now, I’m going in and it’s like larger centres. You might know a scattered person.”

The mayor and his staff have worked for months with provincial officials to anticipate and prepare for any fallout, he said.

“Listen, we have a housing crisis here right now,” he said of escalating rents and real estate prices. A bungalow that would have sold for $100,000 three years ago can fetch about triple that amount, he added.

There are plans for new residential and hotel construction but people have also raised concerns about demands on recreation services and the toll that heavy trucks will take on roads.

And there are worries that already stretched police forces will face increased crime.

“We are in constant contact and discussions with the RCMP,” Abbass said. “The caseload per member here is off the scale.”

RCMP Sgt. Marc Coulombe said police caseload measurements used by Statistics Canada and the Mounties both suggest that the numbers are far higher in Happy Valley-Goose Bay than the national average.

In its most recent report “Police Resources in Canada 2011,” Statistics Canada said the number of incidents per police officer across the country was just over 30 in 2010. That compared to 36.5 incidents per officer in Newfoundland and Labrador but jumped to 129 for the Happy Valley-Goose Bay region.

Gilbert Bennett, vice-president of Crown corporation Nalcor Energy responsible for hydro development on the lower Churchill River, said the province and federal government oversee policing and related funding. Those issues were discussed along with possible impacts on housing, roads and a range of other local services long before preliminary work started at Muskrat Falls last year, he said in an interview.

“We recognize of course that there are concerns in the community. But these items … have been discussed extensively through the planning process for the project and were considered in-depth in the environmental assessment process.

“I think it’s fair to say that both the province and the federal government made comments and certainly reinforced their role in dealing with some of these issues as we move forward into construction.”

Nalcor Energy says Muskrat Falls will generate labour and business benefits worth about $1.9 billion.

Bennett stressed that an onsite camp to house and feed as many as 2,000 workers should ease any effects on Happy Valley-Goose Bay, about a 45-minute drive away. It will have its own security and emergency services, and staff who don’t live close by will be flown in for two-week shifts of 12 hours a day before being flown out for time off, he said.

Bennett said onsite warehouses and corrals for heavy equipment should also limit demand for such space in town.

“We’re not seeing any requirement for large-scale industrial activity associated with the project.”

Nick McGrath, the provincial minister responsible for Labrador, said he understands the angst that comes with big-time development.

He was an entrepreneur and municipal politician as Labrador West handled the benefits and challenges of a mining boom that started six years ago.

“It’s something that the government keeps a close eye on through our different departments,” McGrath said in an interview. A task force of municipal and provincial officials is to monitor any effects of Muskrat Falls and draft action as required.

“In Labrador alone, there are about seven megaprojects that are happening right now,” he said. “Happy Valley-Goose Bay is no different than any other municipality within the province that we deal with.

“If they work as a community and they bring it together, they’re going to see major prosperous days ahead of them from the Muskrat Falls project.”