Update 02/04/2013

We have some disappointing news to report. The Federal Court has rejected our argument that the Lower Churchill mega-dam, which will destroy one of Canada’s biggest rivers, kill fish and harm local caribou herds, cannot proceed on grounds that a full environmental assessment for the project was never completed.

While we’re disappointed by the decision, we remain committed to using our legal expertise to ensure that the environment gets its day in court. Ecojustice articling student Charlie Hatt explains more in the blog post, first published in December 2012, below.

A river cannot speak for itself in court. Neither can a dwindling caribou herd. And yet, when the passion and commitment of local environmentalists combines with Ecojustice’s expert legal know-how, the environment can have its day in court. This is the lesson I learned when I traveled to Ottawa last week for a hearing on the Lower Churchill Generation Project.

I have been working as an articling student at Ecojustice for several months now, learning the practice of law from lawyers who constantly push the envelope to protect the environment. This legal work often builds on the efforts of local environmental groups that are working hard to protect the natural treasures in their little corner of Canada — groups like Grand Riverkeeper in Labrador.

Grand Riverkeeper (and Sierra Club Canada) teamed with Ecojustice to ensure thattwo massive hydroelectric dams will not be built on the free flowing Grand River in Labrador — Canada’s seventh largest river — until a proper environmental assessment is done. The dams will effectively end the river’s ecosystem as we know it and will necessitate roads, transmission lines, and other works which would carve up the habitat of already declining local caribou herds.

During the project’s environmental assessment hearings, many Labradoreans spoke out in defence of the river and the natural habitat it provides for a wide variety of animals. They also questioned the need for a $7.4-billion project that will generate more megawatts of power than is currently used in all of Newfoundland, and shed light on truly green alternatives which could produce power for the province more cheaply and with less environmental harm.

The Joint Review Panel tasked with advising the federal government on the environmental impact of the project took note of these concerns but did not make conclusions where it should have. Ecojustice lawyers argued in Federal Court last week that without conclusive advice from the Panel, the government is left guessing about whether the project is needed, whether better alternatives exist, and whether the cumulative effects of this and other
projects in Labrador might harm wildlife. Really it’s a simple, precautionary argument — the government should not approve a project without first getting sound advice — and we hope the court will agree.

This case deals with a river in a corner of the country few will ever visit, but in a way that makes it all the more important. Local ecosystems cannot speak for themselves. Projects that take place “off the map,” away from large cities or cottage areas, may have the greatest impact on wildlife but often receive less attention. By working with groups like Grand Riverkeeper — whose dedicated members I met after they drove more than 2,000 kilometres to Ottawa to witness the case which may decide the fate of their beloved river — Ecojustice can help to protect local ecosystems and insist that environmental laws meant to prevent harmful projects are fully applied.

This is how the environment gets its day in court.