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Monday, 17 August 2015


Cabot Martin and his geotechnical engineering advisors are at odds with the Minister of Environment and Conservation, Dan Crummell, on some pretty important issues. I have briefly summarized two of them here, but readers are offered full access to the documents via the links provided below.

The two issues mentioned are:

a)      The Minister claims Nalcor Energy has conducted a proper risk assessment of geotechnical conditions at the North Spur. In his July 30th 2015 reply to Cabot Martin’s Letter of July 7th 2015, Dan Crummell says Nalcor has conformed to the Canadian Dam Association (CDA) Dam Safety Guidelines. The advice Martin received suggests that those Guidelines are applicable to “man-made” structures. In other words, they are appropriate for the two concrete structures which will constitute the southern portion of the dam only; not for the North Spur.

b)    The dam break study which Nalcor commissioned Hatch Consultants to perform, and on which the Minister Crummell relied, is based upon arbitrary assumptions which Nalcor insisted the Study should contain.

Let’s look at those two issues more closely and consider a Paper by a Canadian engineering icon which offers a process to resolve them.

Geotechnical Engineers point out that the North Spur is not only a natural feature; it is a deficient structure because it is inherently unstable. The instability is caused by the presence of a type of clay called “Quick Clay” which is known to cause landslides.

Series of Letters Minister Dan Crummell/Cabot Martin:


A landslide at the North Spur or along the lower Churchill valley could be catastrophic. An ensuing collapse of the dam would endanger lives; a landslide along the impoundment area could cut the river off from and negate the function of the Power House, Spillways, and related structures. The loss to the province would be in the billions of dollars.

Nalcor V-P Gilbert Bennett recently conducted a 'show and tell' for the CBC of the remediation work in progress at the Spur. Bennett told the reporter that Nalcor was putting “a structure in place that essentially turns this facility into an engineered dam”. Short of digging the whole North Spur out and replacing it with a totally new engineered dam, this seems on its face an impossibility. If Gilbert Bennett has any basis for the claim he has kept it well hidden.

Dr. Stig Bernander, and other preeminent Geoscientists would most certainly take issue with the Nalcor V-P.  Bernander is the international expert on Quick Clay, who conducted a field trip in the Lower Churchill valley last Fall.  

Related to this Article:

His Presentation to the LSPU Hall and to MUN Engineering raised a good many questions as to the adequacy of Nalcor’s studies and the assumptions on which the plan of remediation is based. (Gil Bennett attended the MUN Lecture only to berate the scientist afterwards. Bennett did not ask him a single question).

Cabot Martin noted:

The CDA Dam Safety Guidelines have been developed and are applicable only to dam structures where all materials used in construction of the dam in question, from the foundations up, are known as to their physical strength, chemical composition and load bearing characteristics and have been engineered and specified by competent engineers in accordance with the Guidelines.

The North Spur is an extension of land 3500 feet long and over 800 feet to bedrock. It contains very complex geology, aside from the presence of unstable Quick Clay. Bennett is suggesting that the reshaping and superficial reinforcement of the top 190 feet of the Spur converts it to “an engineered dam”.

Bennett’s word won’t do; such assertions need to be evidence-based and Nalcor has so far refused release of the Studies supporting the claim.

In addition, the Minister of Environment and Conservation has very specific “oversight” responsibilities enshrined in the legislation governing his Department. It would be an act of unparalleled irresponsibility if he chooses to comply with Nalcor’s demand and accept the use of Dam Guidelines which are not applicable in the circumstance.

On the second item of greatest concern, you will find this advisory located on page 2 of the Hatch 2015 North Spur Dam Break Study:

“The assumed breach bottom elevation for the analysis was specified by NE-LCP to be 20.5m, which is the elevation of the top of the bentonite cutoff wall.” (Note: “NE-LCP” is Nalcor Energy –Lower Churchill Project; underline added).

“…Specified by Nalcor” means that Nalcor instructed Hatch as to the baseline data it would use in the Study.  In effect, Nalcor pre-determined the Study’s outcome.

The job of a Minister, one with an important regulatory role, is to return potentially “tainted” research to the proponent (Nalcor) and demand that the work is conducted to a professional standard.

The Minister doesn’t have the wiggle room to disregard life-safety or the multi-billion dollar price tag for the dam and generation facilities.

What are we to do?

How can we get past those issues and allow the public to enjoy a high level of confidence in the geotechnical and engineering work being conducted at the North Spur, especially given what is at stake?

The answer may lie in a Paper written by distinguished Canadian engineer, Jim Gordon, P.Eng. Permission has been obtained to reference the Paper here, and to give it public access.


Paper By J. L. Gordon, P. Eng. Fellow CSCE


Mr. Gordon has an extensive resume. In brief, he was the Chief Design Engineer for 6 hydro projects which received awards “for excellence in design” by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada. Before retiring, he worked in 15 countries, and for 9 years he was the Vice-President Hydro with Montreal Engineering, practiced as a private consultant, provided advice to consultants and served on a number of Review Boards, including for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro.

Projects on which he worked include the development of the Gull Island site on the Lower Churchill as well as the Upper Churchill.

He has authored or co-authored 86 papers, in addition to columns published by Hydro Review Worldwide.

His credentials are unassailable.

In the Paper entitled “Hydro Review Boards – An important component for a successful development”, Mr. Gordon states “…there is a risk that design and construction mistakes will be made due to a lack of knowledgeable senior hydro engineers at both utilities and consultants.” He notes that he was asked to review 7 pre-feasibility studies and that “Four of them contained serious errors”.

His solution: use qualified Review Boards “consisting of a few very senior engineers with considerable hydro design and construction experience.”

What Gordon proposes many would describe as a Canadian solution: employing common sense and the best expertise available world-wide. 

Competent engineers advise that a project like Muskrat Falls, should have a Review Board comprised of four members and that such a review process would take two months to complete.

Gordon states:
Review Boards are not a new concept; they have been used on many large hydro developments such as Tarbela in Pakistan (1968-76), the Columbia River Storages in British Columbia (1962-73) and at Churchill Falls where the Dyke Board has been in continuous service since 1969, monitoring safety of the dykes and underground structures.  He notes:

“The risk of errors has been recognized by most large utilities…. Review Boards are usually cost effective in that they often find errors or improvements that more than cover the Board expenses. Also, they provide peace of mind to the owner that is more valuable than the cost of the Board.”

Dr. Stig Bernander also spoke of the importance of such Boards and served on several. Component engineers advise that Dr. Bernander, due to his unique qualifications, should be asked to make himself available to serve on one constituted to review the Muskrat Falls project.

Such a “Blue Ribbon Panel” may not answer all the questions critics have about Muskrat Falls. But they would surely address some of the serious technical ones.

Of course, even if the government is prepared to entertain the solution proposed by Jim Gordon, who would we trust to select the Panel, to make choices about which experts qualify?

Nalcor? The government? 

When regulator and regulated have become indistinguishable, who can you trust?

You know we have slid down a very slippery slope when the integrity of a government is doubted even at it very roots.

Meanwhile someone had better wrap their minds around the problems Nalcor is burying at the North Spur and tell us why Dan Crummell has done little more than drive one of the bulldozers.

Jim Gordon's professional panel is sorely needed right now.
After having posted this item on Monday, I received a link to an article published on the International Water Power and Dam Construction Web Site, written 2009, entitled 
Under the influence - 60 most influential people in the industry . The story notes "these people have helped shape the course of the global hydro and dams business over the last 60 years." Jim Gordon, P.Eng. is the only Canadian among the 60. This is an excerpt from the piece:

James L Gordon
Jim Gordon has authored or co-authored 90 papers and 44 articles on a large variety of subjects ranging from submergence at intakes to powerhouse concrete volume, cavitation in turbines, generator inertia and costing of hydropower projects. He has worked on the design of over 45 hydro projects, and was awarded the Rickey medal by the ASCE. As an independent consultant, his work assignments have ranged from investigating turbine foundation micro-movements to acting on review boards for major Canadian utilities. He has also developed software for RETScreen and HydroHelp.