Muskrat Falls and the landslide of uncertainties

How I became convinced some important questions need to be answered about the North Spur.

To be perfectly honest, I was dubious when, in early 2013, Cabot Martin and others started talking about concerns of “quick clay” landslides on the North Spur of Muskrat Falls (see here and here). I thought, “The b’ys are grasping at straws.”

But two things happened, just in the last week, to change my mind and make me give the Muskrat Falls landslide issue further consideration. First, as you will see in the video below, I went to Muskrat Falls and saw the aftermath of a landslide just downstream from the construction site. Second, I read Martin’s recently released book, Muskrat Madness.

In fact, the video doesn’t do justice to the scale of the devastation. It was as if the riverbank had simply let go and rushed headlong into the water, carrying with it entire groves of trees, sometimes still upright, a forest surreally planted in the middle of the river.

On either side of this landslide were scars of previous landslides, all along the river, such that it was obvious this sort of event is a regular occurrence. Whereas I know of rivers in Newfoundland to be jagged and running over solid rock, the Lower Churchill is full of sandbars and clay. Walking on Spirit Mountain (aka, the North Spur), this same kind of clay was everywhere to be seen and there was evidence of recent and old landslides, large and small, as well. It was certainly not land on which you’d think to build a house.

If there is a large landslide on the North Spur that impacts the Muskrat Falls dam or careens into the reservoir, I imagine it would be a very ugly scene. Aside from the facility being rendered unusable, people in downstream communities, such as nearby Mud Lake and Happy Valley-Goose Bay, have good reason to be worried that the onrush of water will be catastrophic.

Of course, this is exactly what Cabot Martin has been saying, and what people in Labrador have been saying for many years before him. Perhaps it was the timing of Martin’s intervention in the public discourse on the North Spur issue, hot on the heels of the project sanctioning, that made it seem a little out to lunch. As he quips in Muskrat Madness, “I probably came off like a guy who thought he had discovered Putin’s plan to invade the Crimea. No response!”

It should be said that Nalcor, from the beginning, has said that measures will be put in place to reduce the likelihood of landslides. These measures include pumps to remove water from clay formations and barriers along the North Spur. However, an exchange of letters recounted in Martin’s book (pages 106-114) casts a shadow over any such assurances and, for me, this is the most important section of the book.

Martin had written the provincial government and requested information about safety issues for downstream communities and about the possibility of dam breaks due to landslides. Minister Derrick Dalley responded:

At the outset, I would note that some of your requests in relation to safety of works, dam safety review reports, and emergency preparedness plans are somewhat premature. While Nalcor fully understands the requirement for such plans pursuant to the Water Resources Act, these documents are required prior to impoundment of the reservoir, not with the start of construction.

What this says to me is that Nalcor isn’t really sure if the dam, the reservoir, the entire project, will be safe or what risks it may pose to downstream communities. Moreover, it sounds to me as though, according to this logic, these questions do not need to be answered until the dam is complete and the reservoir is ready to be filled up.

So then what if, after spending all this money, it turns out that it’s not safe? Presumably, further measures will be taken to mitigate risks. If it comes down to it, perhaps Nalcor will remove the entire North Spur, clay, trees, and all – the technological means exist to do any number of wondrous things. But then, how many billions will that cost?

And is there a point at which this entire project just becomes unfeasible? The answer to this question really can’t be “no!” — so maybe we need to know what that point is.

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