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LETTER: In Nalcor we trust

A landslide on the Lower Churchill River Saturday evening has increased residents’ worries that anchoring the dam on the North Spur is a recipe for disaster. —Facebook photo
A landslide on the Lower Churchill River last year Muskrat Falls opponents continue to question the safety of the North Spur even as the reservoir continues to be filled. —Facebook photo - Contributed

Despite many warnings, Nalcor is proceeding to flood the reservoir at Muskrat Falls. Government has accepted Nalcor’s assurances that all is well at the North Spur. They rejected the precautionary approach proposed in a petition to government signed by people most directly affected.

On May 9, 2017, the Grand River Keeper and the Labrador Land Protectors presented a petition on the steps of the Confederation Building. The petition was signed by 1,000 people. It called for the appointment of an independent panel of geo-technical experts to undertake research, to assess the safety and stability of the North Spur and to consult widely and publicly. The panel of experts was to be led by an eminent geo-scientist and to be selected in consultation with community stakeholders in Labrador. No response was ever given by the government before their decision to allow impoundment.

In a recent letter, eminent Swedish geo-scientists Dr. Lennart Elfgren and Dr. Stig Bernander have issued another alert to the government of Newfoundland and Labrador. Eminent hydro engineer Jim Gordon has echoed their warnings. All three have written to the minister of Natural Resources advising the need for further research into the safety and stability of the North Spur. All three recommended an independent review before impoundment.

In their technical report, dated July 25, 2019, submitted to the minister, Elfgren and Bernander said that “The most critical inclined progressive downward failure surfaces of the North Spur at Muskrat Falls have not been properly investigated. Relevant stress/strain properties of the metastable soil layers have not been made available, and no independent external experts seem to have reviewed this aspect of the stabilization work.”

These two senior engineers at the Lulea University of Technology in Sweden have no vested interest and no hidden agenda. They have repeatedly cautioned that the engineering for the North Spur uses the “Limited Equilibrium Model” based on ideal conditions not found at the North Spur.

Writing in support of Elfgren and Bernander, Gordon informed the minister as follows:

“At the base of the Spur there is a layer of soft soil sloping slightly downstream, where a sliding failure could easily occur. The failure would be rapid under the force exerted by the reservoir waters impounded against the Spur. There would be no warning, and no time to evacuate downstream residents.

“Dr. Bernander and Dr. Elfgren have analysed the possibility of such a failure using the low strength of the soft base layer and not the average strength of the Spur soils, since the failure will occur in the weakest layer, not the “average layer.”

“The result is a safety factor well below 1.0 indicating failure. A safety factor of at least 1.6 is required to ensure safety.”

On Aug. 1, 2019 I wrote to the minister of Natural Resources to suggest she seriously consider the warnings from Elfgren, Bernander and Gordon.

In my letter I said: “As the responsible minister you carry a heavy burden of responsibility to seek the best advice on how you can discharge your duties and to give appropriate weight to conflicting advice from different sources. In the few short days leading up to impoundment you have to ask yourself whether appropriate weight has been given to the voice of the people who live exposed to the shadow of this existential threat.”

On Tuesday Aug. 6, 2019 Nalcor issued this statement: “We anticipate that the water levels in the reservoir will begin to increase later this evening and will rise to approximately 30m over the coming days. We anticipate that by the end of September the water level in the reservoir will reach its final required elevation of 39m.”

The key question is why government is continuing to rely on Nalcor after what we the public have heard from the Muskrat Falls Inquiry. Does the Minister have a duty to inform the public as to why government has adopted the mantra: “In Nalcor we trust”?

Is government giving more weight to Nalcor than to the people who will live each day under  this threat?

David Vardy,
St. John’s


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