Thursday, 14 March 2013


Cabot Martin, the well-known lawyer who served as a Senior Advisor to Premiers Moores, Peckford and Wells, recently released, a 91 page Power Point Presentation entitled: The North Spur Quick Clay Instability & Landslide Problem: The Weak Link in Nalcor's Muskrat Falls Project .

Already, you are thinking: do I have to read the entire Report?  Can I get the essence of what Martin is describing, without hiring a sitter for the day?  I will tell you how.  
But, first, a couple of comments are in order.

Cabot Martin approaches his Presentation, using a volume of research as deep as the “Quick Clay”, to which the ‘North Spur’ is host.  He works with a seriousness of purpose that suggests he may be cross examined by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. His style contains a clarity that presumes a lay person, someone who is not a geologist, has an equal right to a straightforward explanation of the problem, alongside the scientist. 
Likely, you have never heard of “Quick Clay”.  It is glacio-marine clay, as Martin notes, with “peculiar properties that make them infamous as a cause of massive rapid landslides”; the clay material is inherently unstable and can turn into a liquid state.  (Visual proof is provided in a Norwegian video of an actual disaster, noted in the Report and found on You Tube, called "The RISSA Video"; it is so highly regarded  that it used, in Universities, for training.  It is fascinating to watch the earth turn into a liquid, and horrifying, too!).

In this Province, you will find “Quick Clay” along the shoreline of the lower Churchill River Valley, including on the site of the proposed Muskrat Falls Project.

Chances are you have not heard of the “North Spur”, either.  The North Spur is a barrier, projecting into the Churchill River, providing a natural dam for the Muskrat Falls Project. The feature is composed, at least in part, of the same unstable material as “Quick Clay”. 

Without the North Spur there is no Muskrat Falls. 

Nalcor has known about the issue since 1978.  At least five landslides have been recorded since that time. As recently as 2010, a major landslide occurred up river from Muskrat at Edward’s Island.
This instability issue was noted in MHI's Final Report. Nalcor had committed to the Joint Environmental Review Panel, and to the PUB, that it would study the problem in 2012, but failed to do so.  The Minister of Natural Resources recently acknowledged, in the House of Assembly, that he is aware of the problem and that the engineering work is going to be done this year.  In other words, ‘we are going to now study the problem to see what we are going to do’. 

Martin makes one thing abundantly clear: at this point, the Government doesn’t know if the problem can be managed.  Meantime, the Project is sanctioned and Government is spending billions of dollars as Muskrat is advanced.
Cabot Martin’s Report is unusual, not for its thoroughness or its overwhelming evidence that a multi-billion dollar hydro facility is being constructed on geologically unstable ground; what is unusual is that he is noticeably reserved in his judgement of how we have arrived at this point.  Cabot is not known for keeping his views to himself.  This time, he knows the facts are enough; alone, they have a glacial weight.

Having invested several weeks of time, with absolutely zero financial reward to compile the exhaustive (and highly readable) Presentation, I think Martin’s purpose was three-fold:

First, he believes the average citizen can read the document and form their own opinion on whether the Government and Nalcor have gone mad;

Second, he is placing decision-makers, who are inextricably linked to the Muskrat Falls Project, on notice:  The Prime Minister, the Premier, the Provincial Cabinet, NALCOR, the Province of Nova Scotia, EMERA, the Bond Rating Agencies, the Banks who will raise the bonds, SNC Lavalin, the Federal Government’s Independent Engineer, The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of NL, the plethora of Engineers, some of whom will have to put their professional careers on the line as they place their “Stamp” of Certification on the remediation measures taken; all of them, and others, will have to answer if they have been complicit in the seemingly senseless rush to get Muskrat under way, at any price.

Third, Martin likely believes, that sensible people can inspire governments to stop what they are doing and listen up; ordinary people can council caution knowing that they have to pay the mortgage, even if the house shifts on its foundation.  They can demand that the Project is halted until the problem, of “Quick Clay”, has been adequately studied.   They can insist that a determination is made on whether an economically viable solution is available and require the preparation of a full Report, by independent experts; one that is released to the public.   

If you don’t have your sitter arranged, I suggest two things:

1.      Read the two page (very short) Executive Summary at the beginning of the Presentation.

2.      Scoll down to page 41 and click on the "RISSA Video" and watch all of it (or watch it now).

I’m betting you won’t be satisfied until you have read Cabot Martin’s entire Presentation.

One final comment, which I must ascribe to the astute Professional Engineer, whose ear I bent, yesterday.  Last November, the Government said engineering design work on Muskrat Falls was 50% complete.  With 400 engineers working on the job, he estimated that the design should now be 65 to 70% completed.  By the time Nalcor get the soils testing done on the North Spur, and a design completed for the “problem”, design, he stated, will be in excess of 75% complete, or more. 
Why, then, was the very foundation of the project not looked at prior to the completion of all this detailed engineering design work? 


Your comments are always appreciated.


  1. The disturbing thing about proceeding with this project at this time remains the lack of a viable use for the power. It should now be clear to the most optimistic observers that the forecast "demand" in Labrador west doesn't exist. Nor does it in the US, nor on the Island of Newfoundland. It does in Nova Scotia, where it will be provided, I understand, at a fixed cost with the risk of overruns absorbed by rate payers here.

  2. Well said Des, It is time for sober second thought! An explanation from Tom Marshall taken from a Nalcor talking sheet is enough bullshit! If they knew about this and sanctioned it it is a case of negligence. The members of government, aware of the implications of this North Spur instability problem should speak up now, and explain the reasoning around this extremely reckless decision ! Muskrat Falls folly has now gone up several notches in the potential overrun department. Nalcor knows that this situation will need a huge job to make North Spur stable, that was not costed into the now unreliable DG3 numbers! It's time for someone over there to listen to their voters and make sure we are protected before we reach point of no return!

  3. Nalcor always claims they have a solution, for the sake of the people and communities of Happy Valley and Mud Lake I hope they do. The North Spur may hold steady for a thousand years but in the blink of an eye it can all just slide away. Sure they can get an engineer to look at it and then stick a bandaid on it but unless they remove everything the problem will always be there and with that the threat of a catastrophe will always be there as well. The people of Happy Valley and Mud Lake will have about a hour to get to safe ground; I hope they have their bags packed and everyone has transportation. If not, survivors will be mourning the lost of their family and friends. Time for the people in that region to wake up and see how their municipal, provincial and federal officals are putting their health and lives in jeopardy in the name of greed.

  4. I am very discouraged by the message of ignorance on display here. Uncle Gnarley does not give the average NL'er much credit,91 slides of low density writing and many pictures too much to handle? Recommending readers to read a summary, watch a video and come to a conclusion is an insult to all your readers indeed.
    I implore the readers to read all of Mr. Martin's slide pk. and then please read the documents he so selectively references - google is available to reference any of the technical terms - after this, Mr. Martin's crafted criticisms will be seen as the dangerously ignorant presentation. Why would I say this? Please allow me to identify a few issues:
    First off Uncle you yourself must have neglected the required background research in quoting above, the spur's instability was identified in 1965, not 1978.This is clearly read in Sec 2.4 of the 1999 AGRA/SNC Final Feasibility Study. I question the time Mr. Martin put in to this "research" given this simplistic error.
    Second I ask the reader to take note how many slides relate concerns originating from NRCan (Natural Resource Canada). Then read slide 71, in which NRCan states “NRCan does not have the engineering expertise to review and comment on the specific technical details of the proposed spur stabilization measures presented..." This invalidates the basis of much of the criticism leveled in the presentation.
    Third, there is the leading suggestion on slide 3 that the PUB and JPR found information lacking relating to the Spur,this is patently untrue. Review of these reports show no mention of the spur in the recommendations of either. There certainly were concerns in both reports the spur was not one of them.
    Fourth, the video. Stability issues are determined by a number of factors - consistency of the glacial-clay based on amount of sand entwined, amount of top coverage, slope of the incline, water table, precipitation, snow melt dynamics, annual temp gradients - to name a few. You cannot use an example of an event for comparison with out establishing these similarities. It is an exceptional video which shows the destructive power of the fluidization of permeable soil,but it's usage is to provoke and entice fear.
    Fifth Mr.Martin suggests the lack of onsite geological-survey data. There has been in fact detailed surveys completed in 65,75,77,79/80,98; as well as over 15 years of detailed subsurface hydrological data since 1982. The suggestion the work has been undertaken without due diligence is not supported by the documents in question.
    Finally a comment on the job posting. It must be noted the job is an essential part of implementing the stabilization project designed from 30+ years of data and outlined in the 1999 report.As the MF project was awarded only recently, the application is right on schedule as outlined in 1999, hardly last minute. And on the idea of this job posting being evidence of a third dam aka "deep cut off walls' which will be required;if this were the situation, the job would specify said knowledge as a requirement, not as an asset.
    I am not a dam expert; but have the ability to read critically. Nor am I in any way involved with or have a professional interest in the MF project or anyone who is. I am disappointed with the current government's handling of this most important issue; they are rank amateurs,so frightened to say anything wrong they are unable to say anything at all. However I will also stand against the misinformation presented here, doing nothing but fostering fear among NL'ers who deserve better.

    David Elliott
    St. John's

  5. As an engineer, I am impressed with Cabot Martin's presentation. Here is my take. Nalcor has delayed the detailed investigation of the soil/mud properities at the North Spur, knowing that this information is critical for the actual stabilation, drainage and dam design there. The "conceptional design" is for pump drainage and some stabilation fill at some points downstream. Based on what we and they know, the conceptional design will likely be insufficient, unreliable and unsafe, but not too costly, for present DG3 estimates. Further investigation will most likely prove that much more substancial work will be needed . Going to the bedrock seems unlikely. I suspect that a large earth/rock work will be needed. I suspect rock infill into the river downstream of the spur some 200 ft, as a base, and looping in a curve from Sprit mountain to the northwest, which appears to require more than a mile in length. On this rocky base additional fill will slope upward toward the Spur. Where it approaches the existing Spur slope, a double chimney filter/ drain is needed,of sandy and gravel material each some 5 to 10 feet horizontal thickness,the sandy filter section being adjacent to the existing Spur material. This type drain system will be needed for the mile or more of the length of the works. This is much more costly than the current concept. If soil/clay analysis was known "with certainity", this could confirm the unsuitability of the present concept, and the extra cost make the project even more uneconomic. Once the project is in full swing, they can argue the beefed up design must proceed regardless of cost. I am impressed with Cabot Martin's presentation. Few engineers could put this together in 3 weeks. This 'problem' of the soil/clay conditions at the Spur,has long (for decades) been a known unknown. There have been several slides at the Spur, and 15 large slides upstream. Martin has docummented the Spur stability importance and the paper trail of past engineering studies, NRC, and Environmental Panel concerns etc. It points to what appears to be a deliberate delay by Nalcor of a proper investigation of the soil/clay properities there, and still not undertaken. Has Nalcor been negligent or strategic? This issue seems important enough to call a halt to work on this project pending this soil/clay analysis and its implication for the North Spur stability works final design. As to reliabily, safety and costs, no other single issue is so critical to the success of the whole project. Winston Adams

  6. My description of a possible suitable North Spur stability works should read 'looping in a curve to the northeast' instead of northwest. And likely the rock fill base perhaps only 100 ft into the river at the far northeast end. Winston Adams

  7. Mr. Elliot, you make some good points but they do not negate the many unknowns associated with building this project. Like you, I have no technical expertise with respect to constructing a dam or anything else but I know, from experience, that most projects encounter unknowns that lead to higher costs.

    Now, in this case, one would hope that the construction project would be as fail safe as possible but how confident are you that this will happen? We know that government and NALCOR have limited public input and have stymied efforts to gain access to information that really matters, despite overwhelming us with bafflegab and BS. So, how can we know...indeed, how can THEY know.... that the North Spur will not require a massive remedial process to ensure the safety of citizens living below the dam and to ensure the integrity of the structure?

    My concern is that this issue, like so many others, is somewhat of red herring, as it is obvious that there has never been a clearly-established need for this particular project, especially as it relates to power needs on the Island. That was, ostensibly, the reason for it in the first place but now there are so many other "reasons" that the facts become difficult to ascertain. Will this island ever need power going forward? Perhaps! The issue for me is that such needs can be addressed in myriad ways that do not involve massive, and still uncertain, debt that only the people of the island will be forced to take on.

    Nevertheless, the issues Mr. Martin brought up do need to be addressed and it seems to me that NALCOR is not yet in a position to tell us exactly how much it will cost or exactly how they plan to achieve engineering certainty. It is relevant to ask: how much is this going to cost and how does it increase the costs of the project, beyond the DG3 numbers? If the project was marginal with the DG3 numbers, it would be a disaster with possible issues such as this one adding billions to the completion costs.

  8. Excellent, I am so happy to see some response t this most critical issue. I believe that Mr. Adams and Mr. Rogers make some key points above which echo my own sentiment.
    I am glad Mr. Adams has outlined a mitigation strategy - one that does not include the building of a "third dam" or requiring bed-rock level fixtures. I would ask Mr. Adams to compare his recommendations w/ those outlined in App. C of the AGRA Final Feasibility report. The amount of fill you prescribe is greater than what is planned, however the removal of slope material as planned to lower the grade would reduce the amount of fill required. As for your drainage recommendations,they would appear to simplify the clay conditions of the spur;the published data does provide the reader the heterogeneous soil characteristics of the north and south ends and defines different drainage solutions for each. Not sure where you get your mile from but as planned the total drainage length is ~400m or 1/4 mile. However to demonstrate the associated costs let's assume you are correct and a 4x increase is to be expected.
    So as planned the cost in 1999 were tabulated as ~$14 M. Utilizing a cost increase factor of ~1.5 (based on M&S) we're looking at $21 M which then equates to a $60 M increase. Hate to say it but that's hardly a project killer.
    Once again this demonstrates how Mr. Martin's report distorts the reality as he states such costs to be many magnitudes higher. I dislike to have to say this, but Mr. Adams if this is what you think an impressive engineering presentation represents - a 91 page wandering discourse which quotes out of context and makes suggestive,leading propositions w/o backing, and contains basic factual errors - I don't know. Also Mr. Adams as you are willing to state your professional status I would recommend full disclosure. I see that you participated with Mr. Cabot in the PUB hearings where you yourself provided a very well researched presentation on alternative strategies for MF. As it is your business to provide "warm air solutions" though ENGINEERING SPECIALTIES LTD; your recommended approach of the government subsidizing NL'ers to purchase heating efficiency systems is somewhat self serving isn't it? (1/2)
    David Elliott

  9. (2/2 Cont from above)
    Mr. Rogers on the other hand cuts to the chase with his Red-Herring remark. Now I will not begin to defend this project on energy needs here - however I could go on to some length though admittedly this entails on both sides a great deal of future speculation - my point is purely to discredit Mr. Martins arguments as presented. Though I would point out to Mr. Rogers the concept of adding billions is not reasonable. As my rudimentary numbers above suggest a more realistic ~ $50 to $75 M in additional costs.
    Now finally to elaborate on the cherry-picking methodology and out right misrepresentation I will return to his interpretation of NRC concerns. On slide 62 he concludes:"And NRCan also concluded that the Quick Clay problem existed at the North Spur but that Nalcor had not adequately addressed the problem in its EIS.Click
    to see the full NRCan presentation" Go to the pres. CTRL-F and find "North Spur". There is no mention. Confusion and obfuscation. On slide 47:“Without an accurate understanding of the groundwater system ... document how this relationship may change.”Sounds pretty damning, however if you examine the document in question, this quote is from the Justification of Requested Information section and is followed by several sections documenting the information received. A quote out of context is a damning thing. I will point out again that the JPR - which since is used by critics I assume is valid - makes no reference to a lack of this data in it's final recommendations. It does have criticisms this aspect is not included(JPR sec 7).Once again I do not attempt to defend Nalcor across the board, they can do that themselves. I am attempting to discredit Mr. Martin's report however simply because it insults me as reader. I believe it represents a deliberate attempt at manipulation and if anything has reinforced my understanding of the project. If this slide pk. represents the best argument against MF, a "smoking gun" against the development, well then I suggest Mr. Martin and the rest of Vision2041 are shooting blanks.
    David Elliott
    St. John's

  10. Dave Elliot you are a jewel! You continue on with irrelevant gobble gook on what you THINK the cost and fix might be! The amount they prescribe in DG3 for this work, won't cover the cost of the tires on the trucks to haul material in and out of the North Spur! Your technical replies are most likely straight from Nalcor letterhead, that information seems to be spreading to private citizens who are in favour throughout the land! Or perhaps you fail to remember the fact that they knew of the INSTABILITY and QUICK CLAY, and they know it will cost WAY more than they have predicted! Why are you defending that sir?

  11. Mr Elliot, I am impressed with Martin's presentation, not as an engineering presentation, but as a statement showing inadequate engineering on this critical issue at this late stage. For a lawyer, it shows considerable understanding of engineering principles. It is not Martin's job to provide a solution as to a suitable stabilization design.
    I am not a dam designer, and I have not read most of the studies you reference. I have some knowledge of dams and worked on dam construction with Becthel engineers on the Upper Churchill. My suggestion is what may be sufficient to counter the extra pressure of the reseviour, but not likely sufficient for probable earthquake or induced tremors. Whether a combination of pumps, and earth/rock dam would do it, let the experts say. And I assume deep cut off walls don't necessarily mean going to the bedrock, but may require deep measures for stability means.
    The present pumps cover some 2000 linear ft and you say a proposed design is only 1600 ft long. I have not seen any proposed dam designs. But the sinking area to the northeast of the Spirit mountain appears a mile or more, from the photos. While a 1600 ft stabilization length may handle the static water pressure, that whole NE sinking area could go with a earthquake or tremors, in my opinion, depending on the vibration intensity and frequency and also the marine clay properties there.
    Your calculation for a mile long works is about 80 million. The bridge at Placentia is 42 million. The 1999 design you say was 14 million. I would guess a suitable solution may be 0.5 to 1 billion, if indeed one is possible. Both the design and the costing is outside my area of expertise, and time will tell. Of course if you are correct at 80 million or less, then that is not a project stopper. If it much, much higher, it gives weight to Martins argument that a investigation and design should have been done long ago. Don't you agree? Winston Adams

  12. Mr. Adams, every document I reference are among the sources Mr. Martin uses to base his presentation on. All I propose is a review of these and observe the convenience Mr. Martin has selected choice excerpts and more importantly what he excludes. It shows the very opposite of any understanding of engineering principles.
    If one is to go no further than Mr. Martin’s presentation and refuse to critically examine the sources he uses, then will be little I can say to convince them of the errors involved.
    It deeply saddens me the response of a supposed Proud Newfoundlander is to dismiss what they may not fully understand as "gobble gook". The Newfoundland I grew up in was a society aware of the importance of education - a right that our forefathers were denied. I suggest the commentator above to ask himself if such ignorance is part of his vision of what a Newfoundlander should be.

    David Elliott
    St. John's

  13. Mr Elliot,you claim your major skill to to be able to read critically. You accuse me of advocating, in a presention to the PUB, a "warm air solution" to our energy needs, whereby the government provides a "subsidy" for such equipments and you imply that I seek to profit from that, and ask I disclose my interests.
    As to your professsed skill to read critically: In the presentation to the PUB, and further items published in the Telegram, and to the Nfld Power Rate Application, none suggested a governmnet subsidy. All suggest the method commonly used: a portion of the sale revenue of elecrticity is used for customer efficiency programs.Efficient heating is cost effective and reduces electricity for heat by at least 50 percent. So it actually reduces monthly electricity bills. If you can't distinguish the difference between that and a goverent subsidy then you are not a critical reader, or lack a understanding of engineering principles or economics. If it is an error on your part , then we are all prone to errors. As to whether I may profit from the sale of such equipment? I have never chased the residential market for profit but have engaged in a pilot study of 4 residential units, supplied to relatives, as I can monitor, and have confirmed their performance. As such , I am a few years ahead of the power utilities in this. I have reported my findings, in a submission in the recent Nfld Power Rate Application. The Consumer Advocate reported favourably on my research. I ask you to comment on my analysis and findings. Engineering Specialties does have a contractural relationship with one Manufacturer of heating equipment. However the type of efficient equipments in my study is NOT a product we have any contractural relationship to promote or sell. I merely make my experience and knowledge on these systems public. I personally endorse them, as a type of system, based on proven performance. On average they are 3 times more efficient than baseboard heaters. They are now common world wide, and the utilities here have not been mandated to do "serious" customer efficiency upgrades. To the contrary, a critical reader will see that they (Nalcor and MHI) falsely claim we have reached a near saturation point in efficiency upgrades. A critical reader will see the risk of a 10 billion project,by forecasting a increase in power use of 1 PERCENT PER YEAR, when aggressive efficient heating measures can cut 2 percent per year on the grid. My opinion. What is yours?
    Likewise, your critism of Martin's presentation is silly. I have read the 2008 Hatch report. It states a lack of continuous records on the pumps, pumps failed and not repaired, filters screens damaged and not replaced, pumps in danager of collapse, twigs and sand being pumped etc... hardly a glowing report. Most pumps pump little if any water... do you think is good or bad? It is appropriate that this issue should cause fear if not properly addressed. What do yoou think the engineer's iron ring implies? Winston Adams
    Winston Adams

  14. Thank you Mr. Adams for your note regarding the engineer's iron ring. As a member of the population who lives within flood range of the Muskrat Falls dam, I implore all engineers to consider my safety. Stop arguing about who MIGHT be right or who MIGHT be wrong and argue ONLY that we bring in truly independent engineers to assess this situation. Perhaps, Mr. Adams you might relay the story to other readers on this site about how the "iron ring" came to be... so that all can understand!
    I personally, along with 3 of our Grand Riverkeeper Members, visited the newest slump just up stream from the North Spur in early March this year. This slump apparently happened sometime over this past winter. I'm no geotechnical expert, but I would bet the clay at this site (about a half mile or so upstream) is quick clay or leda clay as it is sometimes called.... and I've seen it in various places along the river banks on several canoe trips down the river. I was also on the river in camp the night the Edwards Island slump happened. It happened up stream from us quite a ways and we were all awakened out of our sleep and came out to see what all the commotion was. That gives me grave concern for myself and others who live in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and especially for people who live in Mud Lake. Whether you believe what Cabot Martin writes or not, for the sake of our homes and likely our lives, isn't it prudent to get to the bottom of this? We all know, or we should, that Nalcor and the NL Government is HELL BENT to do this project, at whatever cost! Would that include drowning a few of us "for the greater good"? Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me!