Industrial mega-projects and waste management in Northern communities

Large-scale industrial projects in the North have consequences for local community waste management systems. New and increasing waste flows pose both challenges and opportunities, and it is important to consider how communities can respond strategically to optimize economic, social, and environmental outcomes. This article investigates that question through the case study of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador, and the nearby hydroelectric project under construction at Muskrat Falls.

The now nearly $13 billion Muskrat Falls Project (Fitzpatrick, 2017) is a provincial undertaking designed to supply Newfoundland and Labrador with both energy and fiscal returns. Its escalating costs have become one of the largest issues in provincial politics, making it a classic example of a mega-project: a term used since the 1970s in Canada and the U.S. for very large and expensive, publicly funded physical projects (Altshuler & Luberoff, 2004), which have complex political and economic dimensions.

Figure 1. Happy Valley-Goose Bay and the Churchill River, looking towards Muskrat Falls (not visible).
Photo Credit: Jamie Snook

Locally, the project confers some advantages on Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other communities in the region (such as employment), while also causing problems, including some that have received significant media and scholarly attention (such as methylmercury contamination) (Calder et al., 2016). These, and other issues surrounding local and Indigenous rights, have led to public protests, legal battles, and urgent government-Nation-organization negotiations.

In the midst of this complex and evolving scenario, however, the Muskrat Falls project continues to produce substantial wastes. From a local perspective, these wastes are a burden on infrastructure; yet they also represent potential benefits, either as sources of business for waste management services or as raw materials.

Our approach to evaluating this burden/benefit duality begins with the community’s perspective and employs a mixed methodology to characterize Happy Valley-Goose Bay’s existing waste system, as well as its capacity to adapt to new waste streams. Our research considers local knowledge, published waste management literatures, and inter-disciplinary dialogue, and emphasizes the distinctively Northern aspects of geographical and historical context.

Recent Northern social science on well-being, climate change, and other topics has consistently emphasized the inter-relatedness of community systems, and waste management is no exception. An appreciation of context is vital to forming an holistic understanding of a community’s approach to waste. For example, in the North, long winters impede landfilling and slow decomposition. Remoteness makes shipment to specialized facilities expensive, and small population scales limit the range of feasible infrastructure investments, while also magnifying the impacts of novel waste streams. At the same time, vulnerable ecosystems, local reliance on wild foods, and deep cultural connections to the landscape make effective waste management all the more imperative.

Historical factors are important as well. Since the mid-20th century, Northern communities have frequently faced accumulations of waste generated by southern actors, including extractive industry and military operations. Apart from producing site-specific industrial wastes like mine tailings and petroleum product spills, these projects also have associated workforces that generate additional household wastes, either in existing communities, at remote project sites, or in newly-established settlements.

Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Muskrat Falls
About 8000 people live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in Labrador’s subarctic boreal forest, with nearly 2000 additional people in outlying communities. The town is a majority-Indigenous community (according to the 2011 National Household Survey) belonging to Canada’s provincial North, with substantial local presence from the Innu Nation, NunatuKavut Community Council, and Nunatsiavut Government. While Indigenous presence is ancient, local municipal history is recent. As recently as 1901, the Newfoundland census documented a settled population of only 129 in all of central Labrador, including mainly mixed Inuit-European trappers, fishers, and hunter-gatherers, some timber harvesters, and an uncounted, migratory Innu population. The town site at Happy Valley-Goose Bay itself dates to 1941, with amalgamation in 1973.

Figure 2. Location of Happy Valley-Goose Bay in the North and Labrador.

Prior to municipal incorporation, traditional waste management relied on small middens in settlements and natural processes elsewhere, with little inorganic waste and few potentially hazardous contaminants. Even well into the 20th century, the scarcity of raw materials necessitated innovative reuse and recycling strategies. The establishment of a military base at Goose Bay in 1941, however, had two major effects. First was a direct legacy of industrial contamination, which has prompted major remediation efforts since the 1990s, including $362 million of investment from the Department of National Defence from 2009-2020. Second was the introduction of a wage economy and with it consumer culture and rapid population growth, which quickly overwhelmed local waste management practices and led to a series of rudimentary and inadequate landfills. The current regional landfill was opened in 1985 to modernize the public waste management system; however, it remains only one part of a complex web of waste management processes.

Figure 3. Happy Valley-Goose Bay landfills. A—Current municipal landfill. B—Former Happy Valley dump sites.
C—Selected 5-Wing Goose Bay
air base dump sites. Data gathered from municipal archives.

This web responds continuously to new costs and opportunities, according to the insights and initiatives of individual actors, and particularly the municipal government. However, an external stressor on the scale of the construction at Muskrat Falls requires a more directed strategy for waste management to be effective.

Compared to the establishment of the Goose Bay air base, when regulatory controls on pollution were largely absent, the construction at Muskrat Falls is taking place in an era of stronger government regulation and greater corporate responsibility, at least with respect to waste management. Nevertheless, we see the same basic effects, of increased industrial waste on the one hand, and increased population in-flow with generally increased waste streams, on the other.

It is difficult to measure the impacts of the Muskrat Falls project upon waste produced within Happy Valley-Goose Bay itself, but the project also produces its own household waste through a labour camp of variable size, which houses thousands of workers, generally totalling more than half the population of the town. This waste represents sizeable potential revenue for the local landfill, through the collection of commercial tipping fees. In such cases, it may be difficult to determine the optimum price point, which must be high enough to ensure a net benefit, but low enough that project proponents will not prefer to incinerate waste on their own. Sometimes, of course, no equilibrium price is possible. However, given the additional political and environmental considerations, particularly surrounding incineration, this is potentially a key area for multi-party negotiation between project proponents and waste authorities at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels. An efficient waste management system benefits all parties, and the more a municipality and nearby mega-project can integrate their approaches to waste management, the more efficient the overall system will be.

Waste management opportunities
A mega-project’s direct construction and operations waste is often in itself strictly undesirable—like most mine tailings, for example—and so ordinarily local strategies focus on efforts either to mitigate harm, or to benefit as much as possible from participation in externally-funded remediation. At Muskrat Falls, however, one of the most visible waste streams is that of timber from reservoir and transmission line clearing, with an estimated total merchantable volume of over 2 million cubic metres (Nalcor Energy, 2009). To date, despite much public attention, this resource has been largely neglected, except by local residents, for whom transportation and processing have posed major practical barriers. Larger-scale operations, however, might be viable. One possibility is to use the timber to produce biochar, a substance similar to charcoal, produced by heating wood with limited oxygen. Research by the Labrador Institute’s Dr. Joinal Abedin has shown, for example, that biochar application can dramatically improve crop productivity in local soil, which is critical for food security in a changing Northern climate (Abedin, 2015). Furthermore, Dr. Abedin’s ongoing research suggests that biochar can also potentially be used in polluted landscapes to immobilize landfill leachates or acid mine drainage, thereby using one waste stream to mitigate another.

Figure 4. An overview of selected waste management flows in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL. The Muskrat Falls project is the largest local waste producer, and from the town’s perspective, the project’s most significant waste flow is the tipping of solid wastes at the municipal landfill, for fees that contribute to municipal revenue.

The biochar example shows how blurring the line between waste and resource can be an effective waste management strategy. A mega-project’s trash is unlikely to be a community’s treasure, but a project’s need for waste processing may present opportunities, even when the waste is not valuable in itself. Many of the challenges facing Northern waste management systems are ultimately challenges of scale, for example, and increased waste streams from mega-projects can in some cases possibly provide the necessary scale to make municipal infrastructure investments more feasible. Efficiencies emerge as a waste management system multiplies in size. For example, specialized equipment can allow more effective sorting and hence diversion, reducing total cost. Better infrastructure can improve environmental outcomes. And larger waste volumes can justify targeted strategies, such as biogas capture for food/energy co-generation.

Provided that project proponents allocate resources to address their waste production—which government regulators should require—then the opportunity falls to community strategists to find ways of incorporating those resources into local systems for waste management. Determining the best means will be a challenge distinct to each community, in its own particular context and with its own complexities, but considering the potential advantages of increased waste streams is surely a generalizable and valuable approach. ◉

Morgon Mills is Program Coordinator for the Labrador Institute of Memorial University.

Catherine Keske is Associate Professor in the Ernest and Julio Gallo Management Program at the School of Engineering, University of California-Merced.

This work is a sub-project of Resources and Sustainable Development in the Arctic (ReSDA), a federally-funded research network through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council that finds ways to maximize resource development’s local benefits and minimize its local costs. The authors gratefully acknowledge their partnership with the Town of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, including staff Frank Brown, Julianne Griffin, Anatolijs Venovcevs, and Samantha Noseworthy-Oliver. Thanks also to our invaluable research assistant, Jason Dicker, and to Dr. Ron Sparkes, Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, and Dr. Joinal Abedin.

Abedin, J. (2015). Potential for using biochar to improve soil fertility and increase crop production in the sandy soils of Happy Valley-Goose Bay, NL. Harris Centre, Memorial University of Newfoundland, St. John’s, NL, Canada.
Altshuler, A. A., & Luberoff, D. E. (2004). Mega-projects: The changing politics of urban public investment. Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.
Calder, R. S. D., Schartup, A. T., Li, M., Valberg, A. P., Balcom, P. H., & Sunderland, E. M. (2016). Future impacts of hydroelectric power development on methylmercury exposures of Canadian Indigenous communities. Environmental Science & Technology, 50, 13115-13122.
Fitzpatrick, A. (2017, June 23). Muskrat Falls bill now $12.7 billion. The Telegram [St. John’s, NL].–12-7-billion.html#
Nalcor Energy. (2009). Component studies: air quality, timber resources and other, Timber resources, vol. 3. Environmental impact statement for the Lower Churchill Hydroelectric Generation Project, Nalcor Energy, St. John’s, NL, Canada.

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