Is Port au Port a sacrificial lamb for green energy?

Second in a two-part series

Tara Manuel doesn’t live on the Port au Port Peninsula, but says residents there feel like a freight train is bearing down on them and there’s no way to stop it.

“The Port au Port is one of the most ecologically diverse and sensitive areas in the province, and what they’re proposing to do will virtually destroy the Port au Port Peninsula — 164 mega turbines on that small peninsula is going to make for total misery for the residents and destroy the environment,” she said in a recent phone interview.

Manuel, who lives in the Corner Brook area, admits it’s a challenge to oppose a project that promises to be an international poster boy for green energy.

World Energy GH2’s proposed Nujio’qonik project would initially see 164 turbines take up more than 40 per cent of the peninsula land mass to power a hydrogen plant in Stephenville.

Almost twice as many turbines would be added in two subsequent phases, making it one of the largest wind-hydrogen operations in the world.

The main client for the fuel, shipped in the form of ammonia, would be Germany.

Manuel says residents don’t look askance at the need to combat climate change, but are convinced they are being asked to sacrifice their own backyards for it.

“I don’t think that supporting green energy development and wanting to save the Port au Port from destruction are mutually exclusive positions,” she said.

She’s not the only one who feels the impact will be massive.

The proposal, announced mere weeks after the province lifted a moratorium on wind energy in April, seems to be on a fast track, and residents say their pleas to provincial politicians and even their own municipal leaders are falling on deaf ears.

Mayors and Indigenous leaders who have endorsed the idea are being seduced by cash infusions, says the local Environmental Transparency Committee (ETC).

In door-to-door canvassing, ETC found that more than 80 per cent of residents on the peninsula are against the project.

World Energy has promised a $10-million Community Vibrancy Fund over the next three years, to be fairly distributed in the region.

The company denied Tuesday that any of that is contingent on leaders publicly supporting the project, but an email exchange seen by The Telegram shows such a condition was discussed. The company took an entourage on a field trip to Haldimand County, Ont., to see a wind farm in action, and it’s that county’s funding agreement that was the topic of the exchange.

Indeed, the company does stipulate the funding hinges on, among other things, on “the constructive and collaborative development of a further Community Vibrancy Fund agreement for the production phase of the project.”

It’s not unusual for raw clashes of interest to arise in small communities, but opponents of the wind project say they’ve noticed an especially pronounced reluctance on the part of elected representatives to inform and engage.

Preliminary site work earlier this month, including some land clearing and the erection of MET (wind measuring) towers sparked complaints that the proponents were jumping the gun.

The company had asked towns to post notices for residents, but not all of them did.

The size of the turbines is another point of contention.

Typical onshore wind turbines stand about 80 to 100 metres tall, although that average height has been growing over the years.

But the ones being proposed for Nujio’qonik are about twice that, and ETC members say that’s more akin to offshore turbine heights.

On Tuesday, the company told The Telegram it’s still in discussions with manufacturers regarding what turbines will be purchased.

“The turbines will be designed specifically for onshore wind and for Newfoundland and Labrador’s strong winds, in particular,” they said. “There is no plan to use offshore wind turbines onshore.”

Flying blind

The size of turbines is a big factor in terms of impact on birds, however, and that will be a consideration in the environmental assessment process.

Brendan Kelly is convinced that impact will be significant.

“There will undoubtedly be impact to wildlife, and that’s simply due to how much of the peninsula will be utilized for the project,” said Kelly, an ornithologist and photographer who frequents the peninsula.

“The impact of wind farms is usually based on how many turbines we’re talking about and how much wildlife is in the area. And I would argue that there is both a hell of a lot of wind turbines and a hell of a lot of wildlife at the same time in that area.”

Generic impacts of wind farms don’t fit the mould with this project, he said, because the turbines are usually smaller and more inland.

Newfoundland is not a major bird flyway by international standards, but it is simply in terms of it being a coastline.

“The Port au Port acts like a perfect little geographical cup that catches any birds coming south along the coast,” he said, adding that the project will just turn into a “massive booby trap.”

There’s also fog.

“Fog has a major (impact) on how many things hit those turbines, because of course you can’t see where you’re going.”

World Energy GH3 boss John Risley has admitted he’s in a rush to capture new markets, but Kelly and others say that should be a red flag for such a unique project.

“It’s a lot of firsts all packed into one project — first for the company, first for the turbines, first for the area, first for the province,” Kelly said.

“If you were trying to build a wood shed and you said, everything I’m doing here is the first, you wouldn’t get a permit for the wood shed.”

“Why should we sacrifice our best ecological spaces to give John Risley and company the absolute best resource,” adds Manuel.

“If other Newfoundlanders do not stand up for what is happening here, then what happens when it comes to your community? Because the province is on the cusp of a major paradigm shift here.”

Manuel says people should support new industries, but only with both eyes wide open.

“Are we going to allow these billionaires and the complicit government to just come in and bulldoze the place, and to hell with the long-term effects of environmental degradation and the long-term potential health effects that will be caused by people having to live in such close proximity to such a mega industrial development?”

Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Telegram