“North Spur
in a Nutshell” is an outstanding piece of work, not just for its conclusions, but
also for the clear, evidence based call to action the analysis contains. 

The Quick Clay
stability problem is described in the chillingly objective style of an engineer
all too familiar with difficult, potentially costly, and project-threatening

In this
Piece, just released to the Uncle Gnarley Blog, the renowned Canadian engineer,
James L. Gordon, reduces the problem to terms any layperson
can understand.
And James.L.Gordon, P. Eng. (Retired), is no ordinary engineer.

James L. Gordon
During a
career spanning more than six decades, he has worked on 113 hydro projects, six of which received awards “for
excellence in design” by the Association of Consulting Engineers of Canada. 

projects have taken him to 15 countries; he has served for 9 years as Vice-President
Hydro, Montreal Engineering, practiced as a private consultant, served on a
number of Review Boards, including for Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro, authored
or co-authored 86 papers, and wrote multiple columns published by Hydro Review

professionalism is unassailable; his contribution to the discipline of civil
engineering, especially in the hydro field, is simply vast.

Of course, like another distinguished engineer, James L. Gordon is not new to this Blog (see links below).

Readers will
also recognize the name of Swedish scientist, Dr. Stig Bernander, a leading
expert in new methodologies for assessing Quick Clay induced landslide risk,
who performed fieldwork in Labrador and lectured here last year. 

It is not
surprising that James Gordon took notice of Dr. Bernander’s concerns. As the Piece
suggests, the two have exchanged information regarding the continuing risk inherent in the Muskrat development.

James Gordon
is a long-time advocate of using Review Boards, composed of a small number of
professionals, to assess specific complex issues, like the Quick Clay problem.
Equally, as a writer and long-time columnist, he is a communicator and

His 14 point
review of the North Spur is as disturbing as it is revealing.

If Jim Gordon’s
clarity of prose, as well as purpose, fails to gird us to action, let there be no
doubt that this Canadian icon, like the Swede Dr. Stig Bernander, tried his
best to get our attention. – Des Sullivan

By James L. Gordon, P. Eng. (Retired)

1. The North Spur is a
natural hill 1,000m long connecting Spirit Mountain to the North shore at
Muskrat Falls.

2. When the Muskrat
reservoir is filled, this hill will form a natural dam containing the

3. The hill consists of 3
layers of sand, and 2 layers of quick clay, sloping downstream, on a deep
foundation of quick clay extending down to far below tidewater.

4. Quick clay is similar to
quicksand. It liquefies when disturbed or when it becomes saturated with water.

5. 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.

6. As calculated by Dr.
when the water level in the North Spur is
5m below ground level, the natural dam has a safety factor of 1.43. However,
when saturated, the safety factor drops to 1.09.
This is what would be expected in view of the numerous quick
clay slides.

7. 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 layers, and building a cut-off wall filled with an impervious
material to close off the lower sand layer. All reasonable measures.

8. This means that the 2
layers of quick clay will remain within the body of the dam.

9. Dr. Bernander has
questioned the use of a cut-off wall indicating that it may be detrimental to
the safety factor.

10. To my 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.

11. There is one dam built on
a liquefiable silty sand foundation at Duncan Lake in BC. When designed in 1963,
it was deemed safe. However, since then earthquake factors have increased, and
it would liquefy during a severe earthquake. There is no economical repair.

12. If the North Spur dam
fails, there is the likelihood of loss of life in Goose Bay and Happy Valley,
and the river will divert to flow through the breach in the Spur.

13. If the North Spur fails,
the Muskrat Falls will disappear and be dry. The Hydro facility would become a
stranded asset, with a repair cost well over several billions. Power would be interrupted
for several years.

14. Since the design of the North Spur
dam is without precedent, and the consequences of a failure are catastrophic, it
becomes imperative to have the design reviewed by an independent panel of
experts – a Review Board, to provide added assurance that the design is

Churchill Falls Explainer (Coles Notes version)

If CFLCo is required to maximize its profit, then CFLCo should sell its electricity to the highest bidder(s) on the most advantageous terms available.


This is the most important set of negotiations we have engaged in since the Atlantic Accord and Hibernia. Despite being a small jurisdiction we proved to be smart and nimble enough to negotiate good deals on both. They have stood the test of time and have resulted in billions of dollars in royalties and created an industry which represents over a quarter of our economy. Will we prove to be smart and nimble enough to do the same with the Upper Churchill?


I've been wondering if the whole "ethical wall" business has prevented the Premier of our province from acting where he might and should act?


  1. The discussion on the North Spur is one of public interest and public safety. When Canadian experts start raising the alarm, in public, then it is time for the Association of Professional Engineers of Newfoundland and Labrador to step in and make comment. Of course PEGNL wont do anything, because they are reactive, and near useless as a professional organization.

    Yet we have a matter of critical public interest, where one qualified engineer is asking for a release of the data. Nalcor must oblige with releasing all the engineering documentation on the North Spur. They must clearly identify who has engineering ownership of the North Spur, they should also identify the experts they had reviewing the design. I am absolutely positive that Nalcor have done what should be expected. Gilbert Bennett has retained the best experts in the world to review the design of the North Spur.He is no fool.

    Yet in such a matter of public interest, this work must be made public. The work which has been released by Nalcor is incomplete at best and has raised more questions than answers.

    Dwight Ball has said he will open the books on Muskrat Falls. Well this is a good place to start.

  2. The song goes: The wise man built his house upon a rock, the foolish man built his house upon the sand….. and it all came tumbling down. So what man builds on mud? Mud that is a little rigid today and may be liquid tomorrow. Bennett figures he has properly designed…. like Star Wars and the Enterprise.. "he goes where no body has gone before". Winston Adams

  3. When something like the collapse of the North Spur is possible, the probability of it happening is 100%. It is only a matter of when. However, the soil problems are only one of many reasons that this project should be stopped. Like for example, we cannot afford it, the power is too expensive, we do not need the power, we may not even have the legal rights to control the water. Everything is wrong with this project and our government. I don't hear a peep out of the NDP, Liberals or the PCs or MUN or Fortis. Yet, there are profs at MUN, engineers in government and Fortis that are sickened by the situation. Yet silence. Why?

    • Well, Fortis, that is Nfld Poswer recently advised that the forecast for energy needs by 2017 is dropped from an increase of 0.8 percent (the long term growth to justify MF) to, I believe just o.1 percent….. almost no growth!. A while back I had emailed Nfld Power engineer Wayne Upshall, pointing out that Nfld Hydro forecast is largely based on Nfld Power forecast, given that some 90 percent or more of electricity sold by Nfld Power is bought from Nfld Hydro. I suggested that Nfld Power is therefore the primary driver in forecasting, and that it seems they must take responsibility for forecasting accuracy. I got no reply from Upshall on that point… but the new forecast seems to be detrimental to the MF rationale. And is Nfld Power getting due attention for forecasting accuracy? Winston Adams

    • And I should point out that neither Nfld Power nor Hydro use BEST methods for forecasting, in not using "end use" research. For example instead of testing the energy reduction and demand reduction of minisplit heatpumps, they speculate or use inaccurate information, all to discourage the use of these products. And when energy use and demand actually is less than forecast, as more of these are used, they scratch their heads to wonder why. Not only do they not do proper research, but when such in province research is offered to them, it is largely ignored. For example, while it is factual that these technologies do provide 60 percent or more energy reduction for heating, and 50 percent demand reduction (for our climate) they will say they "may not " offer such savings. Sure, they may not…IF …they are sized incorrectly, installed incorrectly, or are poor quality products not suitable for our climate here. So in short the power companies here are NOT TRANSPARENT IN HELPING THE CUSTOMERS SAVE ENERGY OR THE UNILITY REDUCE PEAK DEMA.

  4. Here's something of interest…. not sure if this will help energy sales from MF: Plaza Retail REIT has finalized a 21.1 million purchase of 100 acres of land for a shopping centre within the Galway project, which I assume is by Danny Williams. I have read that much of his land was purchased at about 300 dollars per acre, which suggests about 666 times profit gross, not allowing his development costs. This sale is for a shopping plaza area. Why can't we all be as smart as Danny? He is so,so,so smart, right?

  5. As for any shopping centre in Galway, it will likely be geothermal or air-to-water heat pumps like those from Aermmec. If oil stays low, it might even be oil fired heat. It is rather unlikely that any new large building will ever be electric baseboard again. Most people I know have started using LED bulbs and heat pumps are cropping up everywhere. You get at least a 25% reduction in your heating bill by retrofitting a heat pump into an electric heated home and the potential is much higher if you use a multi split with adapters so that none of the baseboards are needed any more (other than as a redundant backup). Oil heat may make a comeback too. Also, many people are maxed out and can't afford larger bills. They will simply turn off the heat in some rooms. I expect as the electricity rates rise, demand will DROP.

    • I assume you mean `you get at least 25 percent reduction in your ELECTRICITY bill, instead of heating bill. What one can expect is 50 percent or more reduction in the heating part of the electricity bill, which converts to 30 percent or more reduction in the electricity bill ( as electricity for water heating, TV ,lights fridges, washer and dryer and meter charge,are not reduced by the heatpump. Even so, on $3000 per year, it saves $1000.

  6. Why haven't the local media addressed this story, and other Muskrat Falls concerns about how this project could harm the lives of those living near it?? If the population of St. John's was the ones downriver from it, there would be endless coverage. Seems to me that because it's Native lives at risk, they are seen as completely disposable, a nuisance. Racism is alive and well, and the local media feeds into it by depicting Natives negatively 99% of the time.

  7. I heard on radio today that James.L.Gordon, P. Eng. (Retired) is not qualified to speak on such matters because he isn't a geotechnical engineer. Meanwhile, Nalcor has already addressed the North Spur. Maybe James is being too nice. Rather than lay out the facts, maybe he needs to use better adjectives to describe the top brass at Nalcor. Incompetent, sycophant, sociopath etc. This engineer trusts Mr. Gordon far more than the tribe at Nalcor.