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Monday 17 April 2017


How did 2.2 million m³ of sand and clay that lay atop the section of the lower Churchill Valley shown in the photo below disappear? The devastated one-square-kilometre site is located across from Edward's Island a short distance upstream from Muskrat Falls. Read on and you will find out.

Site of  landslide viewed across the Churchill River from Edward's Island
The North Spur stability problem specifically Nalcor’s refusal to submit its "fix" for independent review still rankles those who have followed the sad saga of the Muskrat Falls project. 

The current $11.7 billion price tag is its own testament to, among other issues, Nalcor’s incompetence. But its failure to take every precaution to ensure the dam’s integrity having been warned of the risks, having closed the door to expert analysis is another in its list of indictments.

The North Spur instability problem isn’t about money anymore that ship has sailed. But four years after project sanction, an independent assessment of Nalcor’s remediation plan still eludes. 

Says James L. Gordon, the highly published Canadian hydro engineer and frequent writer on this Blog: “every utility I have worked with has welcomed a review board, with the exception of Nalcor…”

The precise geotechnical issue at the North Spur has been discussed here many times. Hence I will spare readers lengthy technical definitions and explanations except to the extent necessary to reacquaint everyone with the problem

Recently, I revisited a series of photographs of the 2010 Edward's Island landslide, taken in August 2015, only a few of which got published in a piece for this Blog entitled "Captured By A River Damned"

The decision to do so now is one more try at killing the complacency that infects the provincial government on this issue. Nalcor has its own reasons for denying the seriousness of the issue. Even Stan Marshall, from whom much was expected, seems to have drunk the Kool-Aid. 

The photos are a reminder that a potential collapse of the North Spur, or large parts of its northern slope, is not a mere theoretical possibility. 

Edward's Island is located between kilometre 72 and 73 as measured from the mouth of the Churchill River, according to AMEC, a consultancy which performed a study of the landslide in 2011. The site is just 20 km or so upstream of the Muskrat Falls project.

The North Spur comprises roughly 50% of the Muskrat Falls dam.   

The Spur is a 40-to-60m high trumpet-shaped deposit of sand and clay of 1000m length measured from its north bank at the Trans Labrador Highway, terminating south at a high rock knoll known by the Innu as Manitutshu Spirit Mountain. 

While the falls are powerful, the landmass around which they flow is described as geologically ‘sensitive’. Riverbank calving and landslides along the Churchill River are matters of historical record. The area is geologically complex, but underpinning this complexity is the threat of naturally occurring and induced earth movements.

The problem that joins the Edward's Island slide and the North Spur is a marine clay called 'quick clay'.

Quick clay is one of a number of glacio-marine sediments. As the nomenclature suggests, they are associated with the last period of glaciation, popularly known as the Ice Age. The clays were deposited by glacial melt which raised the level of the oceans. As the glacial ice disappeared, releasing its enormous weight, the landmass rebounded at which time the seas also receded, exposing the shorelines of today. In a 1997 scientific article entitled “Quaternary Geology of the Goose Bay Area” D.G.E. Liverman writes:

“After the last ice age, the whole Lower Churchill Valley was inundated by the sea up as far as Gull Island and a bit beyond. Consequently, marine clays were laid down in these areas, after which these clays were covered by more sediments as the land uplifted. The general limit of glacio-marine clays along the Churchill River Valley is 100m above sea-level.”

The sediments, which the glaciers abandoned long ago, still retain the power to reshape the landscape. 

Quick clay is distinguished from other sensitive clays by its chemical composition: reduced salt concentrations, due to leaching, influences its sensitivity and causes it to transform rapidly into a liquid state — hence the term ‘quick clay’. This excerpt from the AMEC Report on the Edward's Island landslide sums it up nicely:

Excerpt from AMEC Report on Edward's Island landslide
Norway is home to one of the largest and most famous quick clay induced landslides. The well-known “Rissa“ slide occurred when a farmer performed the seemingly innocuous task of digging out his property for a new barn, dumping the clay onto the shoreline of nearby Lake Botn. The excavation served as a triggering event causing approximately 33 hectares of farmland to liquefy and to flow into the Lake within a few hours. The entire devastating event was caught on film. The video "The Quick Clay Landslide at Rissa - 1978 (English Commentary)"  is well worth viewing.

The Dunderdale Government sanctioned the Muskrat Falls project in December 2013, but the words “quick clay” were slow to enter the public lexicon.

Locally, Cabot Martin called the North Spur “the weak link in Nalcor’s Muskrat Falls project.” 

Dr. Stig Bernander
Others, like Dr. Stig Bernander, an internationally renowned expert on quick clay, and, later, hydro engineer James L. Gordon read Martin’s research and were aghast that the issue had escaped detailed public examination.

While independent review is still refused by Nalcor, the demand is hardly excessive.

What would be the cost of a three-person panel of geoscientists to review the remediation plan? Likely it would equal a rounding error on the money Nalcor wastes at Muskrat before breakfast on a single day.

The issue caused Dr. Stig Bernander such concern that he flew from Sweden in 2014 to conduct field research at Muskrat Falls. From there, he returned to St. John’s to lecture at the LSPU Hall and Memorial and to warn Nalcor. What did he received for his “pro bono” effort? Only a dressing down from Nalcor V-P Gil Bennett. 

AMEC Exhibit: See investigated area across Churchill River from Edward's Island

Kayakng the Churchill River August 2015
The Edward’s Island landslide is one half-day's paddle from Muskrat Falls by kayak. 

In my August 2015 trip down the Churchill River, I was accompanied by trip coordinator and kayaker Mark Dykeman. 

I am grateful to Mark for permitting me to publish his photographs, which are presented along with some of mine and others selected from a 2014 PowerPoint Presentation by Cabot Martin entitled "Field Trip Report", based upon the field work of Dr. Stig Bernander in the Lower Churchill Valley area. Other images are taken from the AMEC Report. 

Together, they paint a fairly full picture of that landslide one about which the public would not be generally aware.

What triggered the Edward's Island landslide? 

There are a number of possible triggers. Some are noted in the AMEC Report:

Dr. Bernander’s PhD thesis confirms the effect of a build-up of pressure in the slope due to extreme precipitation and adds others like down-slope undercutting by erosion, seismic tremors, as well as man-made influences like road construction, embankment supports, excavation, rock-blasting, soil compaction, and interference with drainage. All have the capacity to cause quick clay to change character.

AMEC suggests that the most probable cause was meteorological a winter period when the temperature was 8 degrees above the norm, causing excessive snow melt and saturation of the river bank. 

The North Spur Quick Clay Instability And Landslide Problem: The Weak Link In Nalcor's Muskrat Falls project   By Cabot Martin

The sheer number of causal factors for a landslide within valleys containing quick clay only heightens the risks for a catastrophic event at the North Spur. 

James L. Gordon, P. Eng. (Ret'd)
James L. Gordon also wrote of the unpredictability of such landslides. He made specific reference to a slide that occurred in Surte, Sweden: “The slope in Surte had remained stable ever since it emerged from the sea some thousands of years ago. Yet, only driving of a few pre-cast piles for the foundation of a family house in a steep part of the slope was sufficient to trigger this catastrophic event. Quick Clay was proven the cause.  A slope of this kind”, he stated, “may be regarded as ‘a time-set bomb ticking through the millennia.’”

Almost as a warning, and one worth noting, Gordon wrote with respect to the North Spur: “It is essential to ensure that the safety of the natural dam is determined with precision by geotechnical engineers with “quick clay” experience.”

The photographs of the Edward’s Island landslide constitute proof that the demands of Dr. Bernander, Jim Gordon, Cabot Martin, and the Grand River Keepers of Labrador (among others) for an independent review of the North Spur design are both reasonable and long overdue.

The landslide at Edward's Island was measured by AMEC having a volume of 2.2 million m³. The area of the slide is approximately one square kilometre.

From Cabot Martin's PowerPoint Presentation "Field Trip Report" to Central Labrador with Dr. Stig Bernander, October 2014

The first three photographs are cuts from the AMEC Report taken from a helicopter. Even they do not represent the full dimension of the landslide area. 

AMEC photo

AMEC photo

AMEC photo

This is a view of the landslide area from across the Churchill River at Edward's Island
The photos from our kayaking trip were all taken at grade. Standing on the landslide site at this elevation, several photos are needed to capture the entire area.


In the image below, quick clay is easily visible. The surface area of quick clay features an almost plastic-like quality.

In the next two photos, the act of vibrating the surface of quick clay with our feet caused the clay to liquefy.

In the photo below, the slide carried all surface vegetation to the river. This dead sentry had its roots torn away in the avalanche of sand, clay and mud.

The next two images capture a river flowing not over the hilltop but through it. Sub-surface water flows pose a huge risk to quick clay impacted slopes because they cause erosion and soil saturation. Nalcor has installed a bentonite cut-off wall along the toe of the river at the North Spur to prevent water migration. But test results were never reported as to whether this work was properly completed. Workers performing the installation and hydro engineer James L. Gordon have spoken to the need for such testing.

However, there is a larger issue which Cabot Martin reported on in 2014 explained in the next slide:

Excerpt from a Presentation by Cabot Martin, 2014
Indeed, Dr. Bernander's concern about the forces acting downhill, and the special character of the clay along the Churchill River, was reinforced just days ago, in technical correspondence with the Grand River Keepers.

Said Bernander: 

“In the previous reports (I have) stressed the fact that the sensitivities of the over-consolidated Clays of Eastern Canada, the Normally Consolidated Clays in Scandinavia and the highly porous soils typical of the Churchill River Valley are not related to the same structural and evolutionary conditions.

"Sedimentary history, chemistry of soil constituents, grain size structure and grain shape radically influence the stress/strain (deformation) behaviour of soils, thus importantly affecting failure processes and the different modes of slope failure.

"In fact, this is what the problems related to the safety analyses of the North Spur dam containment is mainly about.”

That said

The next series of photos depicts specific features inside the landslide area. One can't help feeling the sense of devastation. The magnitude of the slide simply bewilders. Imposed upon the North Spur, the implications are staggering. Even a landslide farther upstream would likely cause a massive wave to topple the dam. 

Nalcor's proposition is that such an event couldn't happen at the North Spur. The next photograph, taken during the portage around the Spur is one more piece of proof, if any were needed, that the North Spur contains the sensitive clay called quick clay. It was taken by a third member of the group of paddlers on our 2015 kayak trip down the Churchill River.

Physical evidence of quick clay at North Spur caught on camera displaying the same plastic-like property evident in several places at the Edward's Island site

The Edward's Island quick clay induced landslide is only one and not the largest to have occurred in the area of the Lower Churchill Valley. 

For a mere few thousand dollars, a three-member panel of geotechnical experts could be assembled to perform a review of the North Spur design that Nalcor has, so far, adamantly refused to undertake. The essential issue today is exactly as Cabot Martin described it, following Dr. Stig Bernander's visit and field work in 2014. 

In his latest post on this Blog, Jim Gordon also noted: 

"Even Hatch (Nalcor's Consultant) recommends a review board with their comment in the conclusions  “Further analysis on the sensitive marine clays with regards to potential loss in strength when subjected to seismic loading is required. This should be coupled with engaging two eminent consultants with specific expertise on sensitive marine clays”.

Perhaps, the Premier's newly-reconstituted "Muskrat Falls Oversight Committee" can test Nalcor's resolve to countermand any challenge to its authority. If the Committee has assumed the status of "real" as distinguished from "fake" the status of the Committee set up under Premier Tom Marshall it has much to prove. A measure of its resolve is whether it will insist that the review is conducted with or without Nalcor's co-operation. 

Of course, unless the people of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and Mud Lake realize their predicament and get angry the issue will continue to get lost among the one thousand moving parts that make this project a catastrophe.

If nothing else, the Edward's Island example confirms that a landslide at the North Spur or along the slope of the Lower Churchill Valley goes well beyond a mere theoretical proposition.

And if you have read the entirety of this piece, which has turned out to be far more lengthy than planned, you deserve the reward of seeing two of the many magnificent photographs contained in Mark Dykeman's collection, taken somewhere on the Churchill River

                                See also: Captured By A River Damned (A Photo Essay)