ST. JOHN'S, N.L. -- The proposed Muskrat Falls hydro project in Labrador will have major effects downstream including potential health effects from mercury contamination that will infringe Inuit rights, says the Nunatsiavut government.

It cites preliminary results from samples taken by independent researchers indicating mercury from the Churchill River is already flowing into Lake Melville, a key food source for about 2,000 Inuit.

The provincial government and its Crown corporation Nalcor Energy have so far ignored such concerns, Nunatsiavut President Sarah Leo told a news conference Wednesday.

"The risks for Labrador Inuit are high. That's why it's extremely important that Nalcor and indeed the government of Newfoundland and Labrador -- as per recommendations from the independent environmental assessment panel -- enter into discussions with us to ensure steps are taken to mitigate adverse effects of this project.

"The biggest reason why we're here today is we understand, we know through experts, through some of our own research, that Labrador Inuit will be impacted by this project. We need that acknowledged by the province and by Nalcor."

Mercury results from flooding of lands from hydro dams such as the one built in the 1960s for the Upper Churchill project in Labrador.

As it mixes with bacteria, it becomes the more toxic and persistent methylmercury which is linked to heart issues and intellectual problems in children.

Nalcor has said that any mercury contamination will be diluted to "no measureable effects" by the time it reaches Lake Melville.

But Tom Sheldon, Nunatsiavut's director of environment, said Nalcor's assumptions are based on flawed science and inadequate sampling.

Nunatsiavut launched its own effort last summer to collect baseline mercury readings and assess dozens of samples with help from an international network of independent researchers. They include Elsie Sunderland of the Harvard School of Public Health, a leading expert on mercury and its effects.

In its presentation Wednesday, Nunatsiavut said Sunderland has concluded that Nalcor's "modelling and data supporting the Lower Churchill hydroelectric development are insufficient to demonstrate methylmercury concentrations in Lake Melville will not increase."

Sheldon said the goal is to publish an analysis of its Lake Melville samples in a peer-reviewed scientific journal next spring.

In the house of assembly Wednesday, Natural Resources Minister Jerome Kennedy said mercury is an unfortunate result of hydro flooding. But he said Nalcor has repeatedly consulted with Nunatsiavut and has committed to do a human health risk assessment and monitor effects on fish.

Kennedy stressed that the Muskrat Falls dam and power station are outside territory covered by the Labrador Inuit land claim agreement.

Leo said that while mercury levels in Lake Melville can be traced with certainty back to the Churchill River, it's less clear what, if any, health risks may result.

What is clear, she said, is that Labrador Inuit have recognized aboriginal rights and title downstream from Muskrat Falls.

The project, if it proceeds, will negatively affect communities in central Labrador, Rigolet "as well as the entire Lake Melville ecosystem," she said.

No one from Nalcor immediately responded to a request for comment.