Inukjuak dam: researchers analyze contaminant emissions

To our knowledge, this will be the first plant on permafrost to be studied so intensively by a multidisciplinary team of scientists to fully understand the environmental effects., says Mr. Amyot in an email. He adds that it is one of the rare projects of this type that is done in a mode of co-construction of knowledge between an indigenous community, the hydroelectric industry and universities.

As the new hydroelectric plant is built on the run of the river, it will be powered by the flow of the Innuksuac River. Thus, it is not necessary to build an artificial reservoir – and therefore to flood a large territory.

There is still a limited area upstream of the plant near the river that will be flooded. »

A quote from Marc Amyot, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montreal

According to him, when a land area with permafrost is flooded, heat may spread causing permafrost degradation. The first step is to fully understand how the permafrost is distributed before the flood, then to follow its progression following the flood.

To study mercury emissions at the dam site, the team dug two 15-meter holes, the first in the area that will be flooded, and a second in an area near the dam, which will serve as a reference.

We will equip these holes with boreholes that will allow us to estimate the state of the permafrost at the thermal level. We will also do a series of surface drillings to complete our evaluation of the state of the permafrost before flooding. »

A quote from Marc Amyot, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montreal

A view of the drill used to make the 15 meter holes. These will be equipped with probes to estimate the state of the permafrost.

Photo: Dominic Ponton

But why study permafrost and mercury emissions more specifically? For Mr. Amyot, the main reason is that permafrost and surface layer may contain contaminants that have been deposited atmospherically over long periods of time. The research team therefore wants to determine whether mercury accumulated in the surface or deeper soil layers could be released into the river after impoundment.

This phenomenon is important because the mercury present in the permafrost undergoes methylation by the micro-organisms of the river. It’s a natural process, but it results in a very toxic compound called methylmercury. This accumulates in living tissues and then ends up in the food chain. Methylmercury is first taken up by aquatic insects and fish, and is subsequently ingested by organisms that feed on these fish and insects. Ultimately, it is the human being who is contaminated.

We will want to see if the concentrations increase with time after the flood of the land upstream of the hydroelectric plant, explains Mr. Amyot.

Research conducted in partnership

Although the research project is being carried out in partnership with the Inuit community, industry and various universities, the concerns of the community have been taken into account from the start, insists Mr. Amyot.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), Innavik Hydro and Hydro-Québec are joining forces with researchers in ecology, ecotoxicology, geomorphology, anthropology, microbial genomics, who come from the University of Montreal, Concordia University and the University of Quebec in Outaouais.

Two men on the bank of a river beside a well.

Marc Amyot, left, and Michel Sliger, right, near a 15-meter hole on the bank of the Innuksuac River.

Photo: Dominic Ponton

But the Inukjuak research project is not the only one studying the environmental effects of hydroelectricity production. Indeed, other initiatives are carried out in partnership with other First Nations, notably the Atikamekw of Wemotaci (for the study of the Saint-Maurice River) and the Innus of Ekuanitshit (for the Romaine River).

The particularity of these research projects is that the team has earmarked funds in order to be able to really integrate the indigenous communities in the researchrejoices Mr. Amyot, who adds that the requests were co-constructed with the communities.

We want to integrate guides and young people, through summer jobs, into field work [et] we also aim to hold knowledge camps with schoolchildren, in partnership with communities […] Traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge related to the project would be presented as complementaryemphasizes Mr. Amyot.

In his opinion, it is the largest scientific study to date on the environmental consequences of run-of-river power plants in areas that may contain permafrost.

A renewable source of energy

The construction of a run-of-river dam was announced in May 2019. The project, valued at $125 million, is being led by Innavik Hydro – which emerged from the partnership between Innergex Renewable Energy Inc. and the Land Corporation Pituvik.

The run-of-river dam on the Innuksuac River will produce 7.5 megawatts of electricity, and will allow the community to meet its energy needs and even to be able to diversify its economy by welcoming new businesses.

Overview of the construction of a hydroelectric power station.

The Inukjuak hydroelectric plant under construction.

Photo: Dominic Ponton

In 2019, Hydro-Québec argued that supplying the community of Inukjuak with electricity through the hydroelectric dam would save it 20% of costs, while reducing hydrocarbon consumption by more than 80%, and by 700,000 tonnes greenhouse gas emissions.

I think what we will find in Inukjuak could inform other northern communities and help them make decisions in the context of energy transition.hopes Mr. Amyot.

It is interesting for a community to be able to free itself from fossil fuels, but it is necessary to be able to optimize the benefits and minimize the negative effects of such a transition. »

A quote from Marc Amyot, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Montreal

The financial sustainability of the hydroelectric dam on the Innuksuac River is based on a 40-year electricity supply contract signed between the promoters and Hydro-Québec.

Public hearings were held in March 2019 to allow community members to express themselves on the project. Then 83% of the population voted in favor of building the dam in a referendum held the same month.

The inhabitants of Inukjuak had, however, at the time expressed their concerns about the quality of the water. The President of Pituvik then affirmed that the mercury content of the water would be closely watched.

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