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The Planet


Sierra Club activists in Canada are savoring a victory that many observers believed would never come: the death of the $13 billion James Bay -- Great Whale hydroelectric project in Quebec.

On Nov. 17, a joint panel of federal, provincial and indigenous representatives ordered the publicly-owned utility, Hydro-Quebec, to rework an environmental study it had prepared for the project. The next day, Quebec Premier Jacques Parizeau announced that the Great Whale project was no longer a priority of his government and would not be constructed after all.

"I can't tell you how many people said to me over the years, 'You can't stop Great Whale,'" said Elizabeth May, executive director of Sierra Club of Canada. "But I never doubted the project would be stopped."

The ill-fated project -- named for one of the rivers that would be affected by it, la Grande Baleine, or the Great Whale -- was essentially "sucked under by the weight of the massive economic disaster it would bring to the province of Quebec," said May.

The project would have dammed and diverted five rivers that flow into Hudson Bay, flooding over 2,000 square miles in regions across the northern part of the province. It posed a direct threat to the homeland and livelihood of the Cree Indians. As a result, the Cree, led by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, was at the forefront of the fight against Great Whale.

For five years, Sierra Club activists have worked with the Cree in their efforts to halt the project. Club leaders coordinated public events and rallies across Canada, a number of which featured speeches by Coon Come. Another Club role was to educate the public and elected officials throughout the rest of Canada and the United States. Activists in Maine and Vermont, for example, succeeded in convincing their state governments to refuse power from the Great Whale project. In March 1992, the New York Power Authority canceled a $4 billion contract with Hydro-Quebec.

The Sierra Club of Canada was also an intervenor in the multimillion dollar environmental assessment process that was carried out by Hydro-Quebec. As intervenor, the Club -- assisted by scientists who volunteered their time -- reviewed the draft environmental impact statement and pronounced it inadequate.

That position was echoed by indigenous groups and other environmental organizations.The Great Whale project would have supplied energy to an area already experiencing an energy glut, said May. In addition, Hydro-Quebec planned to charge energy consumers in the United States less than it would charge citizens of Quebec.

"Nobody needs this kind of multibillion dollar mega-project geared to exports," said May. "It just brings everybody into greater levels of debt."

Sierra Club of Canada, through its Citizen Campaign on Climate Change, will continue its work to replace mega-projects such as Great Whale with energy efficiency and conservation. In addition, the group recently achieved one of the goals of the Sierra Club's James Bay Ecoregion campaign: Canadian activists have persuaded the federal environment minister, Sheila Copps, to agree to implement endangered species legislation for Canada.

For More Information: Contact Elizabeth May at Sierra Club of Canada, (613) 241-4611.

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