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Monday 3 November 2014


Last week a retired Swedish geoscientist, industry leader, consultant, Professor, and internationally recognized expert on “Quick Clay”, Dr. Stig Bernander, spent three days studying what he described as a “live” land mass on the lower Churchill River. He was able to personally view, on the ground and from the air, a great many landslides and see physical evidence of active movement over a large area including the "North Spur". 

He spent another four days editing his notes, selecting photographic evidence and lecturing at the LSPU Hall and at Memorial University on the dangers of Nalcor relying upon “outdated” geotechnical analysis of the problem.

Quick Clays are unique, sensitive glaciomarine clays.  The clay deposits, at the North Spur as elsewhere, occurred when sea water levels were much higher.  They are unstable clays. Their peculiar characteristics are known to cause landslides.  When Quick Clay is subjected to sufficient stress, the material may liquefy. (Locally, some call the clays "pug".)

When a person of the stature of Dr. Bernander, having no connection to this Province, is troubled enough to perform this public service, pro bono, you have a right to think there is cause for concern.

Rissa slide, Norway

When the Vice-President of Nalcor, Gilbert Bennett, shows up at Dr. Bernander’s lecture at Memorial University, not to welcome the man or to acknowledge his internationally accepted engineering models for assessing landslide risk, not even to ask him a question, but only to express umbrage against the Professor, you know the Corporation has gotten far too used to not being challenged by competent third parties.  

Nalcor's V-P later played defense on the public airwaves rather than produce comprehensive scientific evidence to allay Dr. Bernander concerns. 

Part of the concern is that, based on Nalcor's Report, it seems they have used a "static" or what is called a Limit Equilibrium Stability Analyses methodology (which he states does not apply to "long potential slides in slopes with quick clay...") rather than a far more complex "dynamic" methodology, taking into account the different phases of a landslide. This is the approach he pioneered and for which he has received international recognition.

Recent Slump Feature Near Bottom of North Spur
While the issue is complicated, the lay person is neither expected to run the data for Dr. Bernander’s engineering models nor required to check Nalcor’s equations. The 170 or so people, engineers, lawyers, university professors, other professionals and lay people of all backgrounds, who ventured out amidst wind and rain, to fill the LSPU Hall last Thursday night, knew that. 

Most came, less to be schooled in the field of soil mechanics than to assess, based upon the opinions of a recognized expert, how deep their sense of concern ought to be. 

Many voiced alarm that Nalcor may have failed to disclose a fundamental threat to the viability of the Muskrat Falls project and that it lacked expertise in a critical area.   

Dr. Bernander did not come to Newfoundland and Labrador to slake Nalcor.

He, having now returned to Sweden, likely knows Nalcor is our problem; not his.


Related Reading:    
LECTURE by Dr. Stig Bernander on "Quick Clay" and the North Spur LSPU Hall, 
St. John's, NL October 30, 2014

But Dr. Bernander was able to make one thing clear to every person who attended: the risk of landslides exist not just along the shoreline of the North Spur (the "toe") but much higher up the slope, too.

Marine Clay, north west of TLH
near Lower Brook Bridge 
More specifically, Dr. Bernander states:  “predictions of slope stability have to be based on reliable analyses according to present know-how and R & D, and that particularly in respect of possible hazards related to brittle failure formation in the highly sensitive clays of the North Spur.” 

Continues Dr. Bernander:  “Generally, the Nalcor report (sent to me 2014-08-27 for review) offers little information to anybody wanting to do a critical evaluation of some of the important geotechnical issues….especially regarding possible stability problems related to the impoundment on the upstream side of the North Spur, as well as to the possible impact of various construction measures in connection with the dam project.

“Little or insufficient information is presented on several subjects related to soil mechanics and to slope stability.

He continues: “The report indicates little focus on slope stability hazards related to the possibility of Progressive Slope Failure formation in the quick clays.”

The Professor speaks to the sensitivity of the clay, calling the failure process "brittle" comparing it with striking a window pane (the application of stress) knowing that the glass sheet will break in an unpredictable way.

Little wonder Bernander would be worried. His eyes are cast a good distance up slope while the Nalcor V-P`s are cast down.

Gilbert Bennett sat down with the Telegram back in August of this year, 2014. He told the Paper to dismiss the importance of the slides upstream and downstream (see photos); he spoke of Nalcor's Plan for remediation of the lower part, the "toe" of the North Spur, stating:

The plan involves flattening the spur by taking material off the top and adding material at the bottom, so that its steep sides are less likely to calve off into landslides. Nalcor will also pile rocks at the base of the spur — essentially building a breakwater — both upstream and downstream of the Muskrat Falls dam to prevent waves from eroding it. On top of that, the construction work at Muskrat Falls involves building a concrete and bromite wall in the ground along the length of the North Spur, which will extend 45 metres below the water level.

The problem is Dr. Bernander believes the plan is not valid because Nalcor may not have used the right analysis to begin with.

Note that Bennett failed to discuss the higher sections of the Spur which extend in excess of 2km up over the steep slopes of the Churchill River towards the Trans Labrador Highway. 

Says Dr. Bernander: "The toe contributes very little to stability as compared to the active earth pressures acting further uphill. A small percentage change in the uphill active force is more dangerous than a larger percentage change at the toe."

Bennett seems not to possess knowledge of the "Progressive" and Retrogressive" slides, which can occur at the higher elevations; the details of which Dr. Bernander devoted much of his Lecture.  Bernander warned that millions of cubic meters of sediments can move down over the Spur (or any other embankment comprised of "Quick Clay") once any one of a multitude of forces (water, tremors, blasting, overloading to name a few) become a triggering mechanism.

 Gilbert Bennett showed up at Bernander's Memorial University Lecture not to represent Nalcor in a professional capacity but to express ‘pique’; not to show collegiality with the internationally acclaimed expert, or provide a summary of Nalcor's analysis, or as much as offer Dr. Bernander access Nalcor’s data room.    

Bennett forgets that, as an engineer trained in cable technology, he is little more schooled in soil mechanics than many of the laypeople who took in the Professor's Lecture at the LSPU Hall.  He, and his Consultants, may have much to learn from Dr. Bernander and for that reason ought to constructively engage his counsel.

Bennett forgets, too, that the money spent at Muskrat Falls is public money, not his own. 

A more thoughtful public official, one in a senior role, would have seen the Bernander visit as an opportunity for Nalcor to “strut its stuff”, as one well-placed professional engineer suggested. 

Now that professional engineers, in general, have been warned, not by a layman but by one of their
2014 slide north bank Lower Churchill River
midway between Muskrat Falls and Goose Bay 
Nalcor must not be allowed to just get away with words of “trust us”, to a public that does not.

Then, too, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists (PEGNL) will have to show that the word “professional” is a trademark  intended to imply values of "integrity" equally with the requirement of “competence”.  

If they believe Bernander's claims are credible, knowing he is an expert in his field, they must ask Nalcor for its North Spur "Quick Clay" calculations and be satisfied that the Crown Corporation has competently addressed the issue.  This, afterall, is a life safety issue.   

While there is much in Dr. Bernander’s Lecture that is beyond the scope of this missive one other item demands notice.  Bernander took particular note of this claim by Nalcor in a Report to the Independent Engineer.  States Nalcor:

“There is no evidence of downhill progressive failure landslide along the Churchill river valley.”

Replies, the Swedish geoscientist:  “…I am sceptical towards this Nalcor assessment …. for many reasons. On our investigation tour, many both ancient and recent landslide scars were seen indicating downhill landslide formation and similar phenomena.”  (emphasis added.) 

It is worrisome that the Independent Engineer is completely dependent on Nalcor for such analysis. 

It takes a competent and confident organization to willingly submit to critical examination by experts. Nalcor is not that confident; yet there is simply too much at stake to be wrong.
2010 Edwards Island slide, south bank Lower Churchill
River, midway between Muskrat and Gull Island

Will the Crown Corporation now release all the geotechnical data and analysis, including that which relates to the area above the “toe” of the North Spur or will it wait for the issue to just go away?

Public concern over the safety of the residents of Mud Lake and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, as well as a hydro project already deep in financial hot water, ought to be key Government priorities. 

This is where the new Premier is supposed to pick up the phone to Nalcor CEO Ed Martin with instructions about his new and emphasis on transparency and accountability. 

Like "Quick Clay", overstressed, politics is very fluid right now.  

But if the Premier should ever get a briefing on what a recognized expert has to say about the risks to the residents downstream of the North Spur and to the project itself, as well as a report on Bennett's exhibition of bad manners, he will act decisively in the public interest.  

Hubris must never be allowed to compete with people's lives.

Premier Davis: please tear down the wall of secrecy at Nalcor!