James Bay Hydropower Project

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James Bay hydropower project


James Bay forms the southern tip of the much larger Hudson Bay in Quebec, Canada. To the east lies the Quebec-Labrador peninsula, an undeveloped area with vast expanses of pristine wilderness . The region is similar to Siberia, covered in tundra and sparse forests of black spruce and other evergreens. It is home to roughly 100 species of birds, twenty species of fish and dozens of mammals, including muskrat, lynx, black bear, red fox, and the world's largest herd of caribou. The area has also been home to the Cree and other Native Indian tribes for centuries. Seven rivers drain the wet, rocky region, the largest being the La Grande.

In the 1970s, the government-owned Hydro-Quebec electric utility began to divert these rivers, flooding 3,861 square miles (10,000 km2) of land. They built a series of reservoirs, dams and dikes on La Grande that generated 10,300 megawatts of power for homes and businesses in Quebec, New York, and New England. With its $16 billion price tag, the project is one of the world's largest energy projects. The complex generates a total of 15,000 megawatts. A second phase of the project added two more hydroelectric complexes, supplying another 12,000 megawatts of power--the equivalent of more than thirty-five nuclear power plants .

But the project has had many opponents. The Cree and other Inuit tribes joined forces with American environmentalists to protest the project. Its environmental impact has had scant analysis; in fact, damage has been severe. Ten thousand caribou drowned in 1984, while crossing one of the newly-dammed rivers on their migration route. When the utility flooded land, it destroyed habitat for countless plants and animals. The graves of Cree Indians, who for millennia, had hunted, traveled, and lived along the rivers, were inundated. The project also altered the ecology of the James and Hudson bays, disrupting spawning cycles, nutrient systems, and other important maritime resources. Naturally-occurring mercury in rocks and soil is released as the land is flooded and accumulates as it passes through the food chain from microscopic organisms, to fish, to humans. A majority of the native people in villages where fish are a main part of the diet show symptoms of mercury poisoning .

Despite these problems, Hydro-Quebec pursued the project, partly because of Quebec's long-standing struggle for independence from Canada. The power is sold to corporate customers, providing income for the province and attracting industry to Quebec.

The Cree and environmentalists, joined by New York congressmen, took their fight to court. On Earth Day 1993, they filed suit against New York Power Authority in United States District Court in New York, challenging the legality of the agreement, which was to go into effect in 1999. Their claim was based on the United States Constitution and the 1916 Migratory Bird Treaty with Canada.

In February 2002, nearly 70 percent of Quebec's James Bay Cree Indians endorsed a 2.25 billion dollar deal with the Quebec government for hydropower development on their land. Approval for the deal ranged from a low of 50 percent, to a high of 83 percent, among the nine communities involved. Some Cree spokespersons considered the agreement a vindication of the long campaign, waged since 1975, to have Cree rights respected.

Under the deal, the James Bay Cree would receive $16 million in 2002, $30.7 million in 2003, then $46.5 million a year for 48 years. In return, the Cree would drop environmental lawsuits totaling $2.4 billion. The Cree also agreed to hydroelectric plants along the Eastman River and Rupert River, subject to environmental approval. The deal guarantees the Cree jobs with the hydroelectric authority and gives them more control over logging and other areas of their economy.

See also Environmental law; Hetch Hetchy Reservoir; Nuclear energy

[Bill Asenjo Ph.D. ]

RESOURCES

BOOKS

McCutcheon, S. Electric Rivers: The Story of the James Bay Project. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1991.

PERIODICALS

Associated Press. "James Bay Cree Approve Deal with Quebec on Hydropower Development." February 05, 2002.

Picard, A. "James Bay II." Amicus Journal 12 (Fall 1990): 1016.