A project and a landslide

Michael Johansen
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So, if Nalcor doesn’t build a whole new dam at Muskrat Falls (at whatever astronomical cost) it looks like the so-called North Spur (a long bank of “dangerous” clay that must otherwise hold back the entire load of the reservoir) could collapse any time after the valley is flooded — sending a wall of water to threaten anyone living downstream.

Actually, the problem is even bigger than that, since the unstable glacial deposits are everywhere and have a long documented history of collapse, making the entire lower stretch of the Churchill River unsuitable for dams and reservoirs — and that’s even before the earthquakes start.

So, let’s start with the earthquakes: both kinds (natural and reservoir-induced) are exactly what’s needed to turn from solid to liquid the 110-metre deep bank of glacio-marine clay that makes up the North Spur formation. Natural earthquakes are rare in Labrador, but hardly unknown — in fact, one occurred only 150 kilometres south of Muskrat Falls in 2012. According to Natural Resources Canada (by way of and with thanks to Cabot Martin), dams at Muskrat Falls and Gull Island will increase the number of earthquakes in the region because the nearly inevitable earth tremors caused by the massive weight of the new reservoirs could reactivate the whole Melville Rift System, a major but hitherto dormant earthquake faultline that runs past Muskrat Falls all the way from Groswater Bay to the St. Lawrence Lowlands.

Nalcor says it has found “no evidence of seismic activity” in recent geological times, but the company’s construction project is bound to change that, making already commonplace landslides even more likely. Nalcor, however, is not worried, explaining to its own satisfaction that the dams will be built on hard rock — neglecting to mention that the North Spur clay sits on wet sand. Despite this, the company says it has everything under control, including the price.

“The capital cost estimate for Muskrat Falls includes the work identified in the 1999 study relating to the North Spur stabilization,” the company said in a 2012 technical note.

The Jacques Whitford geotechnical study (which, like an increasing number of pertinent documents, seems not to be publicly available) recognized the clay problem and suggested a few things that could be done to shore up the spur. However, Jacques Whitford strongly recommended that more research be undertaken. Nalcor promised to do it in 2012, but apparently nothing happened. Now Nalcor is promising it for this year and it might take place because (as Cabot Martin points out) Nalcor has gotten its close friends at SNC Lavalin (who, to their credit, point out that Nalcor ignores “the probability of reservoir-induced seismicity”) to launch the North Spur stabilization project — price to be announced later. That’s how news of a third dam has come out. The senior engineer needed to head up the project has to know all about building “deep cut-off walls” —  a dam by any other name. Such a structure would be a major undertaking — possibly almost as large as the other two Muskrat dams combined, requiring the excavation and removal of all the dangerous clay, tons and tons of it.

Remarkably, even a third dam to replace the North Spur won’t solve all the problems posed by landslides. A third dam would remove the North Spur but it would do nothing to stabilize the big clay hill situated just to the north — a hill that by the look of it could collapse into the basin beside the dam, or onto the dam itself.

Unfortunately, there’s no sign the Newfoundland government is taking this threat to the lives of its citizens and to the wallets of its taxpayers very seriously — at least not seriously enough to finally listen to the well-founded and growing opposition to this wasteful and harmful megaproject. Sadly, the government might be happy that the project could cost double or more the current estimate — all that many more billions of dollars to dole out to the dam builders. It won’t matter to them what happens after construction, whether the project makes any money or whether the spur collapses, because they’ll have already handed out all the money.

Michael Johansen is a writer

living in Labrador.

Organizations: Natural Resources Canada, Melville Rift System, SNC Lavalin

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Newfoundland, Churchill River Gull Island Groswater Bay

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Recent comments

  • Wondering
    March 19, 2013 - 11:12

    John Smith, isn't Ed martin an accountant and not an engineer? And what is the cost of stabilization of the North Spur? So what is the logic of saying Cabot martin is a lawyer? You say there is a lot of solutions. Why were they not identified and costed prior to DG3?

  • Earthquake Guy
    March 18, 2013 - 14:30

    Should we worry about earthquakes and mud when nalcor says there is no record of earthquakes in the area in historical times. here's a few facts. There was a quake in July 2012 of magnitude 4.4, located 85 miles from goosebay, say 70 miles from MF. An expert at that time said there was a one about magnitude 4 in 1960. In 1989 there was a one of magnitude 6.5 in Quebec, the largest ever in eastern north amarica. It produces level 3 intensitity in the Goosebay and Northwest River area, despite being centered hundreds of miles from there. That intensity was enough to make cars shake in north west river. There was damage in Quebec, from numerous land slides. Intensity was worse in areas due to poor soil conditions instead of bedrock. Wet clay soils tend to amplify the vibration and damage. As to marine clays like at MF, these tend to get less stable with time as the salt content gets less from both surface and subsurface infiltration. That is why there are more than 15 major slides in the MF region in recent years. So this weakening of the marine clay will grow worse with time, not better. In theory, a moderate size vibrator set on top of the North Spur, tuned to the right frequency, could wipe out the North Spur in minutes. that is not to say it cannot be stabilized. Just that it is serious and likely costly.

  • Thank you Mr. Johansen
    March 18, 2013 - 13:17

    Thank you Mr. Johansen for your very informative piece. Who would have known? Please stay on this as it is the only way the public can possibly know of anything going on with Muskratfalls. In light of bill 29. So much hidden including taxpayer costs and hydro bill costs. I imagine much more. This project is a catastrophe is so many ways. First costs & pollution, now this and the SncLavalin corruption involving politicians. The Nalcor and gov hacks (taxpayer paid also) on here are always attacking those who speak out. We need more award winning jounalists like yourself in NL. So ignore the anonymous Nalcor & NLgov hacks and bigots. They are desperate now that their bill 29 secrets are leaking out. Bravo and thanks.

  • EDfromRED
    March 18, 2013 - 12:30

    I bet you a Billion dollars that those who mock Mr. Johansen's concerns about the unstable North Spur, would not dare live anywhere in the vicinity where they could fall victim if a disaster occurred. Those development die hard's who condemn justified concerns over safety are more concerned with the health of their bank accounts than the lives of people.

  • Jay
    March 18, 2013 - 08:46

    So it's the "Government of Newfoundland" now is it? Just FYI, most of the Labrador MHAs, including Yvonne Jones, support the Government of "Newfoundland and Labrador" in this development. Your presention of every development in Labrador as a disaster to the residents is starting to sound like Chicken Little, and your separatist leanings should be insulting to the people of Newfoundland and Labrador.

  • Thanks Michael Johansen
    March 18, 2013 - 07:45

    Thanks to Columnists like Michael Johansen that we get an accounting of the liabilities that are involved in the building of this project. This is frightening in a time when countries are falling because of indebtness and insolvency, Cypress, the latest while the province of Newfoundland and Labrador's politicians are all gung ho about moving this project forward come Hell or High Water. The Muskrat Falls Project should be paused so that we can take a good breath of fresh air and discern whether or not it is worth going ahead with it at this time, when countries all over the World are failling by the wayside in grotesque debt and, no doubt, in short order insolvency.

  • John Smith
    March 18, 2013 - 06:40

    So now we are to take the engineering advice for this project from a St. John's lawyer, and a Labrador enviromentalist? LOL Give me a break. There are many remidies for this type of problem, and they have been successful all over the world. The tallest building in the world is built on sand, that could liquify at any moment, but they built hunderds of shafts of concrete down to the bedrock to place the building on...there are other methods as well. Black helicopters and tinfoil hats are next for this crew...LOL

  • James G. Learning
    March 17, 2013 - 21:01

    To ignore this piece of information is to not care what the outcome is just so long as this fiasco is carried forward. Heaven hekp all below this Fiasco.

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 16, 2013 - 09:58

    Mr. Johansen, there is no sanity left in this administration, when it comes to Muskrat Falls. The engineering unknowns are every bit as frightening as the final cost will be but they plough ahead no matter what. Heaven forbid this project should be completed only to destroy towns and kill people living beneath the monster. I certainly don't want to contribute to the fear-mongering but it is beginning to look like another one of these loopholes that may yet make this project inherently unsafe. The problem...like so many others...is that NALCOR is ignoring the nagging little questions for the sake of expediency. We have no need for this power on the Island and never will, in my opinion, but are being forced accept a fiat accompli by a government bent on fiscal collapse.

  • saelcove
    March 16, 2013 - 09:22

    Snc lavalin check out the Afghanstan dam project

  • joe
    March 16, 2013 - 07:18

    Will the Mighty Churchill again be responsible for sending people in search of countries with warm climates and without extradition treaties with Canada?