Thirst for Energy Fuels Controversial Power Project A massive hydropower project in northern Quebec will divert the Rupert River to generate electricity for Canada and the United States. In the process, it will also flood an area long sacred to Cree Indians.

Thirst for Energy Fuels Controversial Power Project

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

When we talk about American's dependence on foreign energy, there's a source that doesn't usually come to mind. A growing number of Americans get their electricity from north of the border. In Northern Quebec, sprawling along the shore of the James Bay is a massive hydroelectric complex that helps power the northeastern U.S. And the utility is making it even bigger.

The latest Hydro-Quebec Project will move a river so that it will flow directly into that complex. An engineering feat that supporters say will rival the trans-Alaska pipeline. Some people are furious about it.

North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann went to Quebec to get a look at the project. And he reports that the Rupert River is sacred to the Cree Indians who live nearby.

Mr. JOSIE JIMIKEN (Chief, Cree Nation of Nemaska): (Speaking in foreign language)

BRIAN MANN: Mid afternoon, Chief Josie Jimiken sits talking on his cell phone in a diner in Nemaska, a tiny Cree village with clapboard houses, dusty streets and caribou hides hanging on clotheslines lies roughly a thousand miles due north of New York City. Jimiken grew up on the Rupert River. And he says the plan by Hydro-Quebec to divert roughly 70 percent of the river's water is only the latest blow to his people.

Mr. JIMIKEN: I was 10-years-old when the first projects were announced to harness the dam and divert the rivers up here in our territory. And we ended up being forced out of our original community site.

MANN: Villagers moved to this site, an hour's drive from the river in the 1970s, but they still spend summers back at their traditional camps along the Rupert. Jimiken says many of those hunting in fishing grounds, along with ancient burial sites, will be lost.

Mr. JIMIKEN: There've been changes to almost every aspect of our way of life, the way we used to live out on the land. I'm sure it'll just be compounded some more once this project is done.

MANN: Hike along the bank of the Rupert River and the place feels like pure wilderness. The river is two football fields wide. The amount of water surging through the rocky gorge is awesome.

(Soundbite of waves rushing)

MANN: Waves the size of houses crash and roar. It seems impossible that a force of nature this massive, this muscular, could be tamed. But a couple of miles upriver, an equally massive construction project is underway. An entire mountainside is being carved away. Human figures armed with jackhammers move over the rock like tiny hieroglyphs. The $5 billion plan will send the Rupert River hundreds of miles north into an existing network of lakes and reservoirs known as the La Grande complex.

Mr. PIERRE LAVIGNE (Director, Hydro-Quebec TransEnergie): You can see photos, films about it. You don't get the size of this until you've been there.

MANN: Pierre Lavigne works for Hydro-Quebec. The company is wholly owned and operated by Quebec's provincial government. He stands on the complex's main dam, which towers 53 stories high. Once channeled through this reservoir near Radisson, Quebec, the Rupert River will generate enough electricity to serve up to a million additional homes, a lot of them in Massachusetts, New York State and Vermont. According to Lavigne, it's a treasure trove of safe, clean energy.

Mr. LAVIGNE: In the '60s, '70s, nuclear power was very promising. Still, in Quebec we needed visionaries to say, Ooh la-la! Wait a minute. We've got water, let's stick to hydroelectric. Today, we applaud these guys.

MANN: Hydro-Quebec also generates about $2.5 billion in annual profit. About half of that going to pay for government programs like education and health care. But not everyone is applauding. Over the last three decades, Hydro-Quebec has systematically re-engineered a chunk of wilderness the size of Colorado.

Fly over the northern forest that flanks James Bay and you see untouched valleys framed by granite outcroppings. Brilliant gold tamarack trees edge russet-red muskegs swamps. But you also see a vast web of electric lines, power substations, roads and canals. Artificial reservoirs cover nearly 6,000 square miles. That kind of human footprint in an area untouched a generation ago makes activists like Daniel Green cringe.

Mr. DANIEL GREEN (Environmental Scientist, The Sierra Club): We have severely modified Quebec's northern watercourses' hydrology.

MANN: Green is an environmental scientist with the Sierra Club. He says the rivers, being re-plumbed by Hydro-Quebec, feed everything from beluga whale habitats to spawning grounds for rare river trout.

Mr. GREEN: We are doing an experiment in Quebec's north and Hydro-Quebec is the mad scientist. We do not know where this is going to go.

MANN: In the 1990s, environmental groups in the U.S. and Canada joined with the Cree and managed to kill a plan to dam the Great Whale River, which lies to the north of the Rupert. It was a bitter defeat for French Canadians like Pierre Lavigne, who see this government-run complex as a symbol of national pride, their version of the Hoover Dam.

Mr. LAVIGNE: They gave us bad press. They went to France, to Europe. They went to the States and said that we were eliminating a, not community, but like a genocide or something like that.

MANN: This time, all sides agree that the moral and political calculations are more tangled. Dams built on the Cree's traditional rivers already feed electricity to millions of American homes and factories. Environmentalists like Daniel Green concede that those consumers would otherwise rely primarily on fossil fuels like coal that contribute to global warming.

Mr. GREEN: There's no doubt about it. If you do a greenhouse gas budget on the Rupert River, hydro produces less impact on climate.

MANN: Even among the 16,000 Cree who live in Quebec, there's a debate underway over the costs and the benefits of these projects. Five years ago, the provincial government and the Cree Grand Council signed a treaty that provides roughly $70 million in annual compensation if the Cree allow hydro and other types of development to continue. Three villages refused to sign on. But here in Nemaska, where opposition is strongest, Hydro-Quebec is paying individual Cree to clear-cut their own traditional hunting grounds in preparation for the Rupert River diversion.

Mr. WALTER JOLLY (Member, Cree Indian Tribe): We still got a lot of land. It's only about, not even a quarter.

MANN: Walter Jolly sits by the side of the road in his dusty pickup truck, logging tools piled in the back. He says other Cree in Nemaska were angry when he signed on with Hydro-Quebec. But according to Jolly, there is still room for him and his family to hunt and trap.

Do you worry that the wildlife will be changed or…

Mr. JOLLY: Not really, not really. There's caribous around.

MANN: Do you feel sadness about losing that ground?

Mr. JOLLY: I cannot answer that at this time.

MANN: If Hydro-Quebec keeps to its construction schedule, by 2012 hundreds of thousands of Americans will be turning on their light switches, and they'll be drawing cheap, low carbon power from the Rupert River. Far away in the north, this wild landscape and the Cree way of life will be changed forever.

For NPR News, I'm Brian Mann.

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