N.L. premier says ex-PM Chretien pitched nuclear waste storage plan in Labrador

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Andrew Furey says he rejected an idea last summer from former prime minister Jean Chretien to store international nuclear waste in Labrador.

Furey said in a statement Thursday Chretien mentioned the plan during a phone call last summer when Furey was running for leader of the provincial Liberals to replace former premier Dwight Ball.

"I made it clear it was not something I would pursue," Furey said in the statement. "That will absolutely not happen; not on my watch." 

Federal Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan was equally emphatic: "Importing nuclear waste from other countries to Labrador — where I grew up — or any other part of Canada has never been on the table, nor is it now," he said in a separate statement on Thursday.

The politicians issued the statements in response to a Radio-Canada report regarding alleged secret negotiations between business people and lawyers — including Chretien — about storing international nuclear waste deep in Labrador's granite rock. 

Dwight Ball's former chief of staff, Greg Mercer, was listed in 2014 as a former lobbyist with Dentons law firm for Terra Vault. According to the Radio-Canada story, Terra Vault is the company behind the nuclear storage project. Chretien is listed as a lawyer at Dentons. Mercer's lobbyist status with Terra Vault was terminated on Jan. 1, 2015, and he became Ball's chief of staff in the summer of 2016. 

In late 2017, while running for leader of the Progressive Conservatives, Ches Crosbie raised his own concerns about Terra Vault's aspirations in Labrador and Mercer's connections to the company. 

In an emailed statement Thursday, Ball said Chretien brought up the idea of storing nuclear waste in Labrador during a "brief" conversation. "My response to him was swift to say, as the premier, my government is not interested in entering into any discussions with your clients on this issue," Ball said.

According to the provincial registry of lobbyists, Terra Vault shares a Montreal address with Sydney Harbour Investment Partners, for which Chretien was an international adviser. In 2018, Nova Scotia RCMP investigated Chretien for allegations of illegally lobbying the province's then-premier Stephen McNeil about a port proposal. The RCMP said they had found no wrongdoing. 

The Nunatsiavut government, which represents Labrador's Inuit, said Thursday in a statement it was not consulted about the discussions on nuclear waste storage. 

Under the Labrador Inuit land claims agreement, "the provincial and federal governments have a legal duty to consult with the Nunatsiavut government," the statement said, adding that officials would be doing more fact-finding on the issue before saying anything further.

Todd Russell, president of Labrador's NunatuKavut Community Council, said he will also be seeking more information. "I was frankly appalled to read media coverage this morning about a ‘secretive’ project that has plans to store nuclear waste in Labrador," he said in a statement Thursday.

Lela Evans, who represents the Progressive Conservatives in the Torngat Mountains district, said the secrecy around the discussions is upsetting. "The old colonial days … are supposed to be gone," she said in an interview Thursday. "But it's a common theme, it keeps raising its head."

Evans said there is a long history of governments taking natural resources from Labradorians while putting them at risk, most recently with Muskrat Falls, the massive hydroelectric project being built on the Churchill River, near Happy Valley-Goose Bay. The Ball government admitted in 2019 that it had missed a deadline to complete work intended to lessen the impact of methylmercury pollution on food sources for downstream communities.

Jordan Brown, the NDP's member of the legislature for Labrador West, said he wants Furey to back up his statements with an outright ban on storing nuclear waste in Labrador. "Unless I see that actual bill on the table, then it's still a thought for them," Brown said. 

Evans stopped short of calling for a ban. "What I really want is … for Labradorians to have their voice, and for them to speak on this issue," she said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 1, 2021.

Sarah Smellie, The Canadian Press