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Canadian Hydro Project Opposed

The Environment Environmentalists, Cree Indians attempt to bar massive river diversions for water power

TO Cree and Inuit Indians, the James Bay territory is home. They have hunted, trapped, fished, and buried their ancestors there for 5,000 years. To Hydro-Quebec, an enormous hydroelectric company owned by the provincial government of Quebec, James Bay territory is a sparsely populated area of untapped resources; millions of gallons of wild water just waiting to be channeled into power. Enough power for everyone - Quebeckers, New Englanders, and heavy industries.

The two groups are face-to-face over how the James Bay territory will be used. Last year on Earth Day, a group of Cree Indians canoed from Lake Champlain to New York City to gain support for halting James Bay II, the planned second part of a massive hydro-electric project owned by Hydro-Quebec.

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This year, a group of Crees, economists, and environmentalists are again touring the Northeast.

And environmentalist David Brower, who founded Friends of the Earth and Earth Island Institute, has lent his weight.

States as well as towns and cities have contracts with Hydro-Quebec for power. Environmentalists fear the company is using a $6 million advertising budget to influence those communities to vote in favor of renewing the contracts at town meetings. In Vermont, out of 16 towns relying on independent power companies, eight have voted pro-Hydro, three have voted against. Residents in Morrisville are suing the town for not allowing the anti-Hydro group to speak at the town meeting, says Anne Stewart, director of the Northeast Alliance to Protect James Bay.

"We are here to ask that the contracts between the power utilities in the Northeastern states and Hydro-Quebec be canceled, or at least postponed pending the outcome of Cree court actions designed to force public hearings on the social, environmental, and economic impacts of the projects," Cree Grand Chief Matthew CoonCome said at the United Nations.

If completed, the project will have taken parts of 15 wild rivers. Through a series of 21 dams plus hundreds of dikes, it will divert the flow into three rivers that will spill into Hudson and James Bays. Also part of the project are huge diversion tunnels to carry water between reservoirs.

James Bay II, says Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Cree nation, will submerge traditional caribou-calving grounds, trap lines, and the graves of the Cree's ancestors under the giant reservoirs.

The Indians' main food staple, fish, has already been tainted by mercury from earlier James Bay I projects. The Cree, Mr. Namagoose says, are afraid that the project will mean the end of their culture.

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"We'll become a statistic," he says. "The Cree lived here."

"You have to understand that this is a huge area; 15 rivers sounds like a lot, but there are hundreds of rivers," says Jacques-Andr 142> Couture, head of media relations of Hydro-Quebec. The company acknowledges the presence of mercury which has been found when reservoirs were dug, but says it will be gone in 30 years.

Environmentalists say the changes will destroy coastal wetlands, affect migratory bird patterns, and disturb the delicate subarctic habitat.

And some economists are saying the project will cost far more than it will bring in. The total project will cost $45 billion, 70 percent of which will be borrowed by Hydro-Quebec. With Quebec's small population, that's a high debt ratio, say observers. A Canadian bond-rating agency last week put Quebec government bonds, including those of Hydro-Quebec, on credit watch.

Hydro-Quebec says James Bay II will send only 6 percent of its power to the United States, that most of it is for Quebec, where 70 percent of the homes are heated by electricity. There is debate over how much electricity will be needed.

"We think that environmentally it is the best way to produce electricity," says Mr. Couture. "Our demand is increasing 2 percent a year, even with conservation measures." Others say his estimate is too high, that Quebec has a low birthrate.

New England had a similar growth rate, says William Sheperdson, manager of public information for New England Power Pool (NEPOOL), but that it will be revised downward this year due to the regional economic doldrums. NEPOOL has two contracts with Hydro-Quebec, one of which will last to the year 2000.

"That energy does help us in New England displace the use of foreign oil and fossil fuels," says Mr. Sheperdson.

James Bay II is supposed to begin in 1995. Hydro-Quebec is poised to begin building roads this spring. But the project is running into snags.

Some cities and towns in New England are not renewing their contracts to buy Hydro-Quebec power. The State of Maine canceled its contract in 1989. And the Quebec government recently rejected an environmental study by Hydro-Quebec.

Hydro-Quebec began initial construction on James Bay I in the early 1970s, before environmental-impact assessments were made or land-rights issues resolved.

The Cree opposed the project, but the Quebec government said they had no standing. A Canadian judge ruled that the Cree did have standing, and halted the project. The decision was overturned by an appeals court.

By that time, work had started on the project, so the Cree went into negotiations with the Quebec government to give them greater control over future projects. That resulted in the 1975 agreement, which authorized Hydro-Quebec to give the Cree and other tribes $125 million, to be paid over 20 years in bond issues.

It set up strict environmental assessments. In return, Hydro-Quebec got the right to use some of the land. How much is still being hammered out in court.

"There are a lot of reasons why this is a bad idea," says Paul Messerschmidt, a consultant with the Goodman Group, a Boston-based energy consultant firm hired by the Cree. "One of the most important is, it's particularly not economically sound," he says.

"Canada has spent in excess of $50 billion on the project. Can they sell power higher in New England to justify what they spend?

"It doesn't make sense for US utilities to buy the most expensive source of power first."

Bill Namagoose, looking up at a brightly glowing chandelier, says: "We want our culture to survive. We don't want to be remembered as a lamp."

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