Big Hydro: Changing Environmental Opposition

08/17/10 7:50AM By John Dillon
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Big Hydro: Going To The Source

VPR/John Dillon
Cree native, Roger Orr

(Host) Last week in a festive ceremony, Vermont utilities and Hydro-Quebec signed a new power contract.

Vermont will buy up to one-quarter of its electricity from the provincial utility.

Just two decades ago, a power purchase from Canada would raise significant opposition over social and environmental issues.

But today - with climate change in the picture - the deal has faced almost no opposition.

As we open this week's series on Big Hydro, VPR's John Dillon tells us what changed.

(truck stop)

(Dillon) A truck stop in far northern Quebec may seem like an unlikely place to find an environmentalist and native rights activist. But Cree native Roger Orr is heading south on a family trip to Ottawa, and I'm heading north to take a look at some of the Hydro-Quebec projects. We're both driving all night. So, we meet on the road early in the morning.

(Orr) "Wachiya! (Hello) We're die hards, eh?"

(Dillon) Orr says hello in Cree to a friend. Orr now lives in the village of Nemaska, near the Rupert River. Last November, Hydro-Quebec closed giant steel gates on the Rupert and sent 70 percent of the river's flow north to power a series of generating stations. It's not the first time Orr has witnessed the life-changing power of Hydro-Quebec. He grew up in Ft. George, a village near James Bay that had to be abandoned by the Cree because of an earlier hydro project.

(Orr) "And so I remember the river before, and after. And the effects that it had on the environment, the river, and the people, also. And then so I lived it twice, eh? Up in Chisasibi where my hometown is, and then I moved inland to Nemaska. And there the rivers were still flowing, the Rupert River was still flowing freely and pristine. So I lived it twice, eh?"

(Dillon) Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Cree activists like Roger Orr helped publicize the environmental and social impacts of the big dams.

Mainstream U.S. environmental groups supported the Cree. Under fierce pressure, New York state backed away from a $14 billion contract for Canadian power. Voters in the city of Burlington also rejected a Quebec power deal.

But flash forward 20 years, and Vermont has now signed on to a Canadian power deal worth at least $2 billion dollars, and Hydro-Quebec is eager to expand to New York and other U-S markets.

To understand how the debate has changed, listen in on a recent meeting of the Burlington Electric Commission.

(Shearer) "Moving on to item number 2, which is our public forum. Is there anybody in the audience who cares to speak to this matter?"

(Dillon) Commission chairman Dan Shearer asks for public comment on the city's plans to buy 9 megawatts from Hydro-Quebec. But only one resident shows up to oppose the power purchase. She's Barbara Nolfi, a former city councilor who voted against the H-Q contract in 1990.

(Nolfi) "If we had an option, I would love to hear what they would be, so that we didn't have to cooperate with Hydro-Quebec in its ongoing march on the far north."

(Dillon) Robert Herendeen is a member of the city electric commission and an environmentalist who fought large dams out West. He worries about hydro-electric development in Quebec.

(Herendeen) "In the end, we're going to knock off a piece of nature. And if there are no pieces of nature left, to my mind, that's not good."

(Dillon) But Herendeen supports the Hydro-Quebec purchase. His world view changed.

(Herendeen) "When this issue came up 20 plus years ago, global warming wasn't in most people's vision. And now it's serious."

(Dillon) Hydro-Quebec has also scaled back its plans, at least in the James Bay region.

And in 2002 the utility reached a truce with the James Bay Cree. The 15,000 Cree will get paid $70 million a year over 47 years.

David Massell is a history professor at UVM who's studied Quebec hydro-power. Massell says opposition in the U.S. faded after the Cree made their deal.

(Massell) "What was sort of a cause celebre for New England environmentalists in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s just can't be any more if your aboriginal allies have fallen away, if they've signed the piece of paper. So I think that's one of the reasons why we saw exactly one speaker speak in opposition to the BED continuation of negotiations."

(Dillon) Burlington Electric decided to move forward with the Quebec contract. A big argument in favor was that the Canadian power is now considered renewable energy.

And Hydro-Quebec's light carbon footprint has impressed utility regulators. David Coen is a member of the Vermont Public Service Board who invited officials from Quebec and Vermont to speak on the benefits of large hydro to a recent national conference of regulators. Coen says global warming has changed the equation.

(Coen) "And I think that this is just a different era in terms of trying to find ways to eliminate carbon and where this looks a lot better than it did 30 years ago."

(Dillon) And that's Hydro-Quebec's pitch to other New England markets: It's renewable; it's a solution to climate change.

But to the people whose lives and livelihoods have been affected, it's not a simple tradeoff.

Activist Roger Orr is a drug and alcohol counselor. He says you can't dam or divert nine rivers and flood an area the size of Belgium and not have an effect. Cree society has changed. The people may be wealthier, but they suffer from more of society's ills - alcoholism and drug abuse, he says. And the environment is clearly altered. Orr says the diversion of the Rupert has left sections of the river dry in places he and other Cree used to fish.

So, it bothers him that Hydro-Quebec power has now been labeled renewable, at least by Vermont.

(Orr) "If I was to go and build a dam in New York state, oh man, they would see first hand what it is, that they're saying it's renewable and green energy? No no, the people are suffering. The environment is suffering."

For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.

(Host Outro) Tomorrow in our series on "Big Hydro," VPR looks at environmental trade-offs, including the death of wild rivers and mercury contamination in fish.


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