Wednesday, 5 July 2017


Guest Post by David Vardy and Ron Penney

The recently released SNC Lavalin risk assessment report identifies the dearth of geo-technical investigations as one of the highest risks of the Muskrat Falls project. In his Uncle Gnarley post of June 29, 2017 Cabot Martin cites this report to confirm his claim that the North Spur is one of the major threats to the project and to the people living and working close to the site. The SNC report refers to “major scope change.” Cabot states:

Now “major scope change“ with regard to an admittedly unstable dam component like the North Spur is engineer code for “Your proposed North Spur stabilization design could be unsafe and to make it safe will require as yet unknown and un-costed extra work.”

And also unstated is that geotechnical conditions may be found (like Quick Clay) which will in effect be impossible to cure.
And if you can’t cure that problem, you will have to cancel the whole project because use of the North Spur as a key (nearly 50%) component of the overall dam system is an essential element of the project.
This was the situation at the date of sanction (and still is) a real and present risk.
Because for all Nalcor’s bluster, the amount of geotechnical information on the North Spur is still totally inadequate – for instance, the drilling density on the North Spur itself is still far too low and large areas (particularly upslope toward the Trans Labrador Highway) are totally devoid of test drilling locations and drill results.
Yes – that’s correct - right up to this very minute when the reservoir is partially filled and lives downstream are in increased danger – catastrophic failure of the North Spur is a real and present risk.

We have been supporting the Labrador Land Protectors and the Grand River Keeper in their petition for government to appoint an expert panel on the North Spur. The North Spur poses a risk to the citizens of Labrador, to the workers on site and to the project itself. It is one of the critical risks of the project, impacting on the environment and on the cost.

We corresponded with CEO Stan Marshall on the need for a geo-technical panel to be appointed but he indicated that he was comfortable with the work that had been done. We repeated much of the argument we presented to Marshall when we wrote on January 16, 2017 to the Chair of the Oversight Committee. We recognized that the mandate of the Committee is limited but we are confident that the North Spur is a pervasive risk which spans all aspects of the project, impacting safety, environment finance, energy, and economics. The letter is quoted in full below.

We are writing to you in your capacity as Chair of the Oversight Committee to request that you consider the attached list of issues relating to the North Spur, compiled by retired engineer Jim Gordon, in collaboration with the undersigned and with other colleagues.

The North Spur is a hill 1,000m long which comprises part of the natural dam at Muskrat Falls, a dam which is both an advantage of the site, as well as its Achilles Heel. When the Muskrat reservoir is filled, this hill will form a natural dam containing the reservoir. The hill consists of two layers of sand, and two layers of quick clay, sloping downstream, on a deep foundation of quick clay, extending down to far below tidewater. Quick clay is similar to quicksand. It liquefies when disturbed or when it becomes saturated with water. There are numerous quick clay slides on the North shore upstream and downstream of Muskrat, including three large slides on the downstream slope of the North Spur.

NALCOR intends to increase these factors by flattening the slopes, adding a downstream berm, adding pump wells, placing an upstream impervious blanket to close off the upper sand layer, and building a cut-off wall filled with an impervious material to close off the lower sand layer. This means that the two layers of quick clay will remain within the body of the dam. To our knowledge, quick clay has never before been used to form part of a dam structure, nor has a dam been built on a quick clay foundation.

If the North Spur dam fails, there is a risk of loss of life in Goose Bay and Happy Valley. If the North Spur fails, the Muskrat Hydro facility would be left high and dry, and become a stranded asset, with a repair cost well over several billions. Power would be interrupted for several years. Since the design of the North Spur dam is without precedent, it is imperative to have the design reviewed by an independent panel of experts – a Review Board, to provide added assurance that the design is safe.

There has been no public forum for reviewing the North Spur and to test the research and remedial measures advanced by Nalcor’s geo-technical experts. The engineering design work had not been completed when the joint panel undertook its review so the panel could not test the effectiveness of the remedial measures that have been taken since the panel’s report of August 2011.

When public health and safety are at issue such critical independent assessment must be in public view, through a fully transparent process and conducted by a panel of geo-technical experts. It must be fully independent of the proponents and its engineering consultants. The “precautionary principle” requires that when a project imposes a potential risk to the public and the environment, and there is no demonstrated scientific consensus to refute such risk, then the proponent must provide evidence that the project will not be harmful. This applies in particular where extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. There is a social responsibility to protect the public from exposure to harm. The exercise of the principle calls for further scientific research and inquiry to provide sound evidence that no harm will result.

I am sure you share our concern that every measure possible must be taken to reduce risk, following the precautionary principle, even if it leads to an excess of caution over incaution by the project proponent. Not only is a huge financial investment at stake but, more importantly, failure of the dam has the potential to place people and communities at risk, through life-threatening unpredictable events! Better to err on the side of safety, when lives are in the balance!

We have been told that Nalcor has mitigated all the risks and that we should trust Nalcor to do the right thing.  Is there any basis on which the public can have trust that Nalcor has left no stone unturned in its quest to maximize public safety and to minimize the risk of a devastating dam failure or earth slide? Sadly we do not think there is!

We are all familiar with the egregious cost overruns which have increased estimated project cost from $6.2 billion in 2011 to $11.7 billion in 2017. We are all familiar with the delay for full power from 2017 to the second quarter of 2020.

We are all familiar with egregious lapses in quality control on this project, including the leaking coffer dam, the “popped” transmission strand and the collapsing concrete cribbing. These lapses, and others, make it clear that quality control has been weak and, furthermore, that Nalcor is not capable of being its own project manager.

The performance of Nalcor is far from exemplary and provides no basis for trust that everything has been executed in accordance with the highest quality standards. It is not clear to us that the new CEO has instigated a “root and branch” transformation which will make Nalcor more open, transparent and accountable. From the outside there is little evidence of structural change, other than the separation of generation from transmission, and little change in senior personnel. In our opinion major changes in structure and senior personnel are essential. We are disappointed that the new CEO has chosen not to initiate an independent review of the design plan for remediation. We believe government must undertake such an independent review and that it should be expedited.

The undersigned wrote to your predecessor, Julia Mullaly, and to the Deputy Minister of Environment and Conservation, Jamie Chippett, on November 22, 2014, providing a copy of the PowerPoint presentation made by Dr. Stig Bernander at the LSPU Hall on October 30, 2014.

In our covering letter we made the following statements:

If Dr. Bernander is correct and the right engineering research and associated mitigation measures are not undertaken, assuming that mitigation is even possible, the risks of a catastrophic failure of the North Spur, which include the loss of the project and downstream flooding, are significant.

The Joint Environmental Panel concluded that the loss of the Muskrat Falls dam would result in the "inundation" of Mud Lake and the lower part of Happy Valley Goose Bay, with only two hours of notice, causing immense property damage. Two hours’ notice would not provide sufficient time to evacuate all those who would be in the path of a wall of water and there would likely be loss of life.

If we were in your position we would want to know that we took all necessary measures to ensure that the risks of such an eventuality are reduced to the extent possible and urge you both to exercise your responsibilities by getting the best independent advice possible.

The attached list provides a compelling case for the appointment of such a review panel independent of Nalcor. It delineates the risks which remain outstanding and complements the work done by Dr. Stig Bernander.
Jim Gordon concludes as follows: It is essential that the dam design be reviewed by a panel of geotechnical experts. It is not too late to undertake such a review, since any changes resulting from the review can still be built. If there are no changes required, then there is the added assurance that the dam is safe.
An independent review of the geo-technical research and remediation for the North Spur should be embraced openly as a prudent course of action. This review should be initiated by government, given Nalcor’s defensive posture and its failure to take action on its own.

The undersigned would be pleased to meet with you to discuss this matter. We also recommend that you invite Jim Gordon to meet with your committee to explore his concerns, along with options to deal with this major problem.
You are now the most senior official in the government. Because of our own personal experience we know what an immense responsibility that is. You have both the opportunity and the responsibility to recommend that government take the prudent steps we suggest. We look forward to your response.

On March 31, 2017, two and a half months later, we received the following reply:

On June 19, 2017, another two and a half months later, we received another reply, similar to the first, but which indicated Nalcor has been “directed” to communicate with us.

The Oversight Committee turned down our offer to meet. We have heard nothing from Nalcor despite the “direction” they were given. The fact of the matter is that we had exhausted Nalcor’s willingness to respond to our request when CEO Marshall told us on July 26, 2016:

The engineers at SNC who are responsible for the design at the North Spur and are supervising the work are certainly qualified in these matters. Their design was thoroughly reviewed and approved by other qualified engineers at Hatch Associates. Two academic experts in the field of soil mechanic we also consulted. I've had conversations with the SNC engineers to assure myself that they are aware of all the concerns that have been raised and that they are absolutely comfortable with their design and the work that has been done or is planned to be done. I've reviewed the Hatch report and I've visited the site and spoken to those doing the work. No one involved in the design or execution of the work has expressed any reservation. I have forwarded your comments on to them but I'm comfortable that the North Spur is being properly resolved.
Three issues concern us. The first is how slow and unresponsive the public service is, operating at glacial speed, despite the gravity of the risks. Second, there is far too much deference to Nalcor on the Muskrat Falls project, both on the part of politicians and bureaucrats. Third, Nalcor has adopted an intransigent position, refusing to take action which will reduce the risk to life and property. This attitude is very troubling.

In light of these it is not appropriate for Nalcor to take the lead. The expert panel must be appointed by government and must be totally independent. It should be chaired by an eminent geo-technical authority such as Dr. Norbert Morgenstern, who chaired the inquiry into the Mount Polley mining disaster. It is urgent that this panel be appointed as soon as possible. Government must not wait for a disaster to happen before acting but should act immediately upon the petition presented by the Labrador Land Protectors and the Grand River Keeper Labrador on May 9, 2017.

Ron Penney and David Vardy


  1. Would just like to say, former premier, A. Brian Pickford has called for an audit of muskrats, in an open letter to the primer. Please don't anyone, remind us of cumbercums, that was a drop in the bucket, at something over 20 million. And now we talk of food security, those green houses would come in handy now.

    1. The Sprung greenhouse was a great idea and while the yields were less than expected, it could have provided the province with lots of fresh produce and MUN biology could have been tasked with using it for research to improve yields. To put the 20 million in perspective, Danny Williams insisted on custom Tory blue windows for the older part of the confederation building at a cost of fifty (50) million dollars. Brian had great intentions. Muskrat Falls on the other hand is criminal.

  2. Spoke briefly to Stan Marshall at end of Nalcor's 2017 AGM, briefly expressing my concerns about the North Spur. He gave me the same reply as outlined in the above post (he was satisfied with Nalcor's expert assurances).

    I reiterated that I was not satisfied.

    His communications rep then advised that she would contact me the following Monday to arrange a meeting so that I might discuss the matter in more detail with Nalcor. Nothing further heard from her.

    Further North Spur reading is available at

  3. Will Nalcor release the SNC and Hatch reports for review? The first aspect to look at will be whether the date of the work precedes that of the 2013 Risk Assessment report.

  4. With all the evidence pointing to one gigantic blunder with the whole MF project starting from conception to where we stand now and no one in Government willing to take the first step in admitting that "maybe we were wrong" points to a coverup to protect those responsible. Someone is holding a gun to Dwight's head for reasons unknown.
    Damnit Dwight, you're the one person who has the supreme authority to initiate an investigation and get a handle on this terrible scourge which has been inflicted on a defensless public, yet you continue to dither.
    This province is all but bankrupt because of MF and the reckless spending spree of the previous PC government and our children and grandchildren will forever be hogtied. We simply cannot afford to pay the high electricity rates which are yet to come coupled with the high taxes and levys which you will inflict upon us.
    Are you unable to see that the high (and going higher) cost of living discourages investing in this province and dicourages even our children and grandchildren from living here.
    I thihk Stan Marshall has had his hands tied in being told what to say and "not" say.
    What has happened to us must not go unpunished.
    The above letter screams to have an investigation started--for God's sake show some leadership. This cannot go on.

  5. I find it very vexing that the NL Mainstream media put more time and effort into the non-story that Costco maybe might move a few miles away, than the very possible major disaster that may cause the drowning of a scores of people. I'm guessing they'll be the first on the scene to film the floating bodies.

  6. I find it very vexing that the NL Mainstream media put more time and effort into the non-story that Costco maybe might move a few miles away, than the very possible major disaster that may cause the drowning of a scores of people. I'm guessing they'll be the first on the scene to film the floating bodies.

    1. Its all about advertising dollars in their pockets. Same ols story.

  7. Dwight ball needs to get off of his behind and make something happen. The Liberal party didn't initiate the MF fiasco, but given his complete lack of initiative in addressing it, the Liberals will wear this one for a long time. Get on with an inquiry, regardless of the cost and even if there is a slight delay in project. Given what the people of this province are faced with all because of Danny's folly, now is the time to do something, not two years from now. We need to know who did what, when and where, and if the people of this province are burdened with this fiasco, who then benefitted??????

  8. I both applaud and support Messers Penney/Vardy action to bring a little science to the fore.

    Mt. Polley catastrophic dam failure is as good a reference point in examining the Muskrat dam engineering and construction. Bravo!

    With a more progressive government in place in BC it is hoped that inquiry into our Site C Hydro, (Peace River, run of river parallel project to Muskrat, under construction ), will alter the "build it and they will come" attitude of the last Liberal regime.

  9. How much is a million $? How much is a billion $'s. A friend asked me that some time ago. I replied a billion is 1,000 million. But can I really compenrend that since I don't have that kind of money in my bank account as I suspect most readers don't either. Remember when Tom Marshall was finance minister he carried a deficit clock I think it was called. Most people like me throw around a million and a billion $'s a if they were around the same. But here is a relative comparison .....if you were to count, make, spend or repay a million dollars at a rate of 1$ per second, 24/7, how long would it take to count, repay etc. a million dollars? If you do the math, it comes out to approx. 11.5 days. If you were to count, repay etc. a BILLION dollars at the same rate, of one dollar per second, how long would it take to count, repay etc. Again, if you do the math it would take 32 years approx. OMG, 11.5 days to count a million, BUT 32 years to count a billion dollars. Wow, that puts things in prospective. You could probably stand on your head and spit nickels for 11.5 days, but 32 years, that's maybe half a lifetime. I have no idea at what rate we will pay back the cost of muskrat, but assume it is 1$ per second, to payback 10 billion would take something like 320 years, imagine that. Just food food for taught, and the average joe like me, but especially for the brilliant brave media.

    1. And those rates EXCLUDE interest payments, no?

      Interest for 32 years is many multiples of that for 11.5 DAYS.

      So, the real payback for $10 billion would be some multiple of 320 years, no?

  10. Maurice, this is just a comparison as you know of how much bigger a billion is than a million, as including myself it is difficult to comphrend. But you are right, no there is no interest included unless you say it is in the I billion or the ten billion. And of course the payback rate is just based on a hypnotical rate of 1$ per second. But guess the bankers will decide that. Hope it is not confusing.

    1. You fellows need to pay attention to the imminent collapse of the $Petro, while addressing values;

      I would not accept "the bankers will decide that..." They are too much part of the "Deep State".

    2. Yes, my comment was not meant to be critical. I think your comparison does the job "biggly" (as Trump might say).

      It really gets the message across.

      Well done.

  11. And for clearification purposes, this has nothing to do directly with muskrat, or interest, is is just numbers that can be applied to anything that is numbers based. But my purpose was to allow the average person, hopefully to see the difference in a million and and a billion, as we the public toss around millions and billions as if they were the same, including government.

  12. The feds are spending 200 million on fisheries research..........big money they say and trying to catch up on lost time for research on our cod , capelin and climate change in the oceans generally............and 200 million is significant.......yet a little province like us wasting maybe 15 billion , and adding a billion or so each year as if it was crackerjacks............crazy, crazy crazy..........this is what oil wealth did to us.......and for those with net worths of hundreds of millions, they like the billion figures, especially if on the backs of the ordinary and poor.
    A billion......too big a number too visualize, easily, and maybe why few are outraged that our leaders risk putting us in debt so far, by "throwing the dice", was that Danny's words, describing the MF gamble. Now Stan and Dwight keeps throwing the dice.
    And I used to think Trump used to say biggly......and then figured it was his pronounciation............meaning too say "big league".........but I may be wrong.

  13. Thank you for the excellent article.

    One quibble though - you state that "We are all familiar with the egregious cost overruns which have increased estimated project cost from $6.2 billion in 2011 to $11.7 billion in 2017".

    It seems to me the most recent official estimate is $12.7 billion ...