A Report prepared by the Independent Engineer for the Federal Government on the Muskrat
Falls project warned Nalcor long ago about the potential for a leaky cofferdam.
The same Report stated Nalcor had failed to record important geotechnical notes
detailing the presence of a sensitive clay at the North Spur (the natural dam) called “quick clay” – which has the
potential to liquefy under certain conditions and to cause landslides. 

Independent Report is important for reasons other than the defective aspects of
a project the public is learning to hate.

One relates
to Nalcor’s attempted suppression of the Report.

Another is
that the Report contains serious deficiencies even if there is – finally – limited evidence of a “firewall” separating the Independent Engineer from Nalcor – earlier
reports having been demonstrably incapacable of invoking criticism.  

matters will be visited later. But, immediately, the public should be apprised
of the concerns the Independent Engineer has identified.

First, the leaky cofferdam –
A crisis is playing
out daily as Nalcor witnesses the effect of its own megaproject inexperience.
They watch as the temperature drops, wondering when frazil ice might form and
cause damage to the concrete works – as they look to the native protestors for
a scapegoat.

A cofferdam
is a structure that provides a temporary dry area to permit the permanent works to be built.  

The Upper cofferdam – now the subject of attention – is basically a large, long (450m) embankment structure. The standard construction design called for a “dumped starter dam topped off by a compacted fill
embankment dam…that consists of two rock fill groins constructed from the
riverbed up to el. 17m (upstream) and el. 14 m (downstream) with a dumped till
impervious zone placed in between them.” Though temporary, it must be properly built in order to be impermeable. It seems Nalcor – never able to stay
on any schedule – rushed the effort.

Said the Independent Engineer on page 4:

NALCOR had failed
to allow time for a complete dewatering or proper cleanup and
grouting of cracks in the exposed rock foundation where clays and other
till are dumped to make the cofferdam an effective barrier to water penetration. 

The leaking water
allowed the fine silts to be washed out – and without them a dry structure
became an unlikely prospect. The seepage continued. Flooding of the reservoir naturally a build up of water pressure – which accelerated the water volume through the
“broke/disturbed rock”. The event forced Nalcor to vacate the work site and to institute the
grouting program needed in the first place.

Marshall has confirmed that the ice boom needed to protect some of the
installed works will be delayed until 2017, “…unless there’s an extraordinary
mild spell, it can’t be done. We simply ran out of time”, he told The Telegram.

In a
nutshell, the delay means higher project costs and a later commissioning schedule.
Did you happen to hear Stan Marshall say if the contractor is responsible for
the extra cost and the additional delay?

Second, the North Spur –
The Independent Engineer advises:
Readers may
remember that “very sensitive” or “quick clay” has the capability to liquefy under certain circumstances including seismic
activity, blasting, and pile driving, to name a few of the triggering possibilities. Referencing the above assertion, the IE states that “this material liquefied when being placed in
the dumps of the trucks and flowed back out…as they proceeded upgrade”. The
motion of the truck, likely over a rough road bed, replicated the
kind of disturbance that that causes liquefaction in “sensitive” materials. 

The presence
of quick clay at the North Spur, long denied by Nalcor’s Gilbert Bennett is disturbing enough –
given the risk of dam failure to the residents living downstream. But the Independent Engineer is also concerned about Nalcor’s failure to properly record fundamentally important data.

The IE
reminds Nalcor of a “project meeting…held in the offices of SNC in Montreal on
14 January 2016 to discuss geological features of the North Spur. The meeting included
discussion of “…an anomalous feature in the upstream slope” and noted in “November, 2015 occurrence of liquefiable
material in the downstream slope described above.”

The IE said
“It was noted during the January 2016 Montreal meeting that very little
information was being documented or mapped by site staff about geological
The Report stated that “It was agreed that geological
mapping of surficial geology and soil mechanics related features would be done
in the future.”
 (underlining added)

Then the
Report gets to the point. It states that a review with the IE’s geotechnical
specialist and site staff “during the July 2016 site visit (found) Very little
geotechnical information concerning items such as water seepage lines, local slumps/structural
anomalies or sample locations was recorded”
. (underlining added)

In addition,
the specialist noted: 

“No “as built” geological mapping plots have been done of
the downstream slope. The locations of liquefiable material are generally known
but they have not been surveyed or plotted on a suitable map. The IE was
informed that this information is recorded and that mapping compilations will
be done later, however, no factual or surveyed information was shown by the
site staff. In view of the critical nature of liquefiable soils in the slope,
the IE contends that a much more systematic review of surficial geology is
needed. In particular, the presence of major water seepage, location of known
liquefiable materials and their relationship to known stratigraphy is crucial. This
information could be crucial if there is ever a slope stability incident or
other occurrence which requires an external review of previously documented
(underline added)

The citation
of those lengthy direct quotations are deliberate for three reasons.  First, they are damming in their implications. Second, Nalcor’s
secrecy regarding the adequacy of its North Spur remediation scheme has been
persistent and systematic. Nalcor will denigrate a world renowned expect in the case of Dr. Stig Bernander, but it won’t subject its work to an independent
investigation. Third, Nalcor has long denied the presence of quick clay at the
North Spur.

When Nalcor
is accused by the IE of having failed to properly log occurrences of quick clay
and other critical data which “could be crucial if there is ever a slope
stability incident or other occurrence…” – Houston we have a problem.

It is time
that the Mayor of Happy Valley-Goose Bay and other local leaders – including native leaders – unless thay are all of the pretend variety – get a lot more serious about problems at the North Spur.

Third, the Powerhouse Formwork

The IE

Dry rot on
the formwork timbers and shoddy construction work “contributing factors to the
incident”! Readers might want to review a July 2015 post entitled
Engineers Break Silence on Problems at Muskrat Falls” in which engineers working at the site made a number of
recommendations to get the project back on track, including one about Quality
Assurance. They suggested:

enlightening as the IE is with respect to the causes of the incident, the Report is slim pickings in terms of detail. The engineers who helped write the July 2015
blog post ask again: where is Nalcor’s capability to run a megaproject? Q&A
experts want to know if the various engineers required to sign-off on the
formwork’s readiness for the concrete pour actually did so? Did Nalcor ever modify its
“Quality Assurance” program?

Fourth, the Transmission Line

following excerpt is from page 11 of the IE’s Report

This problem
was described in a Piece on this blog written by J.P. Schell, P.Eng.(Retired). The article was entitled Design Engineer Baffled by Extent of Muskrat TL Flaw Reported by CBC. Once again, the popped wire represents a colossal
failure of quality control processes. The problem occurred in the factory – hundreds of kilometers were spun as the extra or “popped” wire
went unnoticed. The faulty wire was shipped here and unloaded – evidently without inspection. So, the defect went unnoticed. 

Then to compound the gap in its quality control procedure, hundreds of
kilometers of the wire were strung onto the transmission towers. 

Now the cable must be taken down,
purchased again, and re-strung. There is no evidence any party, except Nalcor,
is paying for the materials and the cost of the extra work of re-stringing the lines.

That is one dimension of Nalcor’s failure regarding the transmission lines. But there are others. 

The IE
states that, at the contractor’s insistence, the service roads will be upgraded
to an all season standard. Nalcor had planned to provide a grade suitable only for
“winter access” in many areas. The change represents a quite significant additional cost considering the circuitous routing required to maintain acceptable gradient for a
roadbed stretching over an 1100 km. 

Remember, there is also the cost of
hundreds of towers that have to be removed and replaced due to an unsuitable design
given the challenging (boggy) terrain. 

Don’t you think the public should be looking for a new project cost estimate… and soon? On what basis can Nalcor make the claim they have gone too far to stop? Yes, they have gone too far with projects costs but they are no where near project completion!

Does anyone
not think the public should know – from independent sources – the continuing
saga of management problems at Muskrat and why this project is fast accelerating
towards a cost figure of $15 billion?

In truth, the
Independent Engineer’s Report is not nearly as detailed or as
comprehensive as it should be. Yet, it is the case that this IE Report is different in tone and content from the ones previously made public. 

The contrast might even cause one to think that the purchase by Stantec Inc., in May of this year, of the WMH Global Inc. – the company with the long-term contract and the role of Independent Engineer for the federal government and the bondholders – is the reason for this more critical content. Perhaps this is why rumours abound that Stantec has been relieved of this contract – a matter to which we await confirmation.

Still, the EI’s Report, in its entirety, presents a lower than acceptable standard for review of a mega construction project. We will discuss this problem in a future post. 

Still major deficiences – some reported long ago on this blog – have finally earned the IE’s notice.

In addition – and a future post will prove  – if Nalcor had found a way to bury David Vardy’s ATIPPA request for this latest Independent Engineer’s Report, the public would know a lot less about the issues described here. 

And that – Stan Marshall – is not acceptable.
Des Sullivan
Des Sullivan
St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada Uncle Gnarley is hosted by Des Sullivan, of St. John's. He is a businessman engaged over three decades in real estate management and development companies and in retail. He is currently a Director of Dorset Investments Limited and Donovan Holdings Limited. During his early career he served as Executive Assistant to Premier's Frank D. Moores (1975-1979) and Brian Peckford (1979-1985). He also served as a Part-Time Board Member on the Canada-Newfoundland Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB). Uncle Gnarley appears on the masthead representing serious and unambiguous positions on NL politics and public policy. Uncle Gnarley is a fiscal conservative possessing distinctly liberal values and a non-partisan persusasion. Those values and opinions underlie this writer's views on NL's politics, economy and society. Uncle Gnarley publishes Monday mornings and more often when events warrant.


Bill left public life shortly after the signing of the Atlantic Accord and became a member of the Court of Appeal until his retirement in 2003. During his time on the court he was involved in a number of successful appeals which overturned wrongful convictions, for which he was recognized by Innocence Canada. Bill had a special place in his heart for the underdog.

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?


  1. This "not being ready for winter" is simply without defense. A quick purview of the month reports posted on line shows that the boom component contract was awarded in April 2016. The contract to install was awarded at the end of July. the contracts were split, when the original intent was that they would be awarded together. We need to understand the readiness of both the equipment, and the installation contractor. Was this an issue of "protest" or they simply were not ready to complete the work. If the contractor or fabricator were not ready, this is no the fault of the protestors. It would be the fault of the Nalcor project management. What a debacle this is turning into.

    • The fact that the protest was necessary at all speaks volumes about the incompetence in the management of this project. Incompetence was written all over the actions of Nalcor and the government before, during and after the protests. And the beat goes on…..

  2. I understand that MF is being run by some people with experience in the oil patch and also some from the cable TV business. A quick look at the new Nalcor Board of Directors shows similar experience, so no change in capability there!
    I doubt that the chair who lives in the Bahamas can be of much help with the frazi-ice problems or with the sheet ice formation for structure protection.
    It remains to be seen if the river can be successfully harnessed at this location.
    Suffice it to say that our money is in good hands?? and our risk at MF is substantial.

  3. Excellent and fairly comprehensive post Des.

    Readers should note also that engineer Jim Gordon has today stated, in part, that "Three facts have emerged since I arrived at the conclusion that the North Spur was indeed safe, which have caused me to again reverse my opinion".

    Go to to read Mr. Gordon's most recent analyses and conclusion ——- Maurice Adams, Paradise

    • Who is protecting the jobs of those at Nalcor responsible for misleading,deliberate suppression of, and downright false information surrounding this horrific project. Not withstanding the collossal financial expenditure, we're talking human life here. It's looking more and more like fraud is being perpetrated to protect the jobs of those who are supposed to be in control. Is there no one at all capable of bringing this to some form of acceptability and accountability?
      Every other day we're hearing of one thing or another that has occurred and for all intents and purposed "covered up".
      The Feds should take control and employ respectable and QUALIFIED people to stop this runaway train before it completely derails. Damnit! were talking the life and livelihood of Labrador residents and future generations of NLers yet no one takes responsibility!!!
      According to reports, there has been very little advice heeded with the attitude being "no one tells us what to do"
      If this project proceeds the way it looks like it will,bankruptcy is inevitable for this province.

  4. Boys, cost over-runs will progressively continue to the end of this project. The lifeline relief for rate payers is to follow good advice by Maurice and others; Get yourselves off the electric grid for heating and cooling!

    • If Canadian law allowed us to vote that way, it could work. Unfortunately our voting system does not have individual items attached to the ballot on which the electorate can vote on. We elect the candidate and upon election if he/she forms the Government they tell us what we are to pay in the form of taxes and fees and this is where we will pay for MF. We're screwed no matter which way we turn.

    • Folks in Ontario are doing that. Problem is though that these socialistsare implementing carbon taxes disguised as concern for the environment. They can see revenues falling off the cliff. This will only accelerate due to no similar measures planned by the US, England, France etc. I figure time to leave my Province likely for the USA and make real dollars while I still can.

  5. Wayne: "We'll still have to pay for it one way or another"

    That is, sadly, the reality. Even the Feds loan contract has pretty extensive / nasty provisions for defaults. (they probably smelled the mismanagement right from the start)

  6. "THE NEW DATA INDICATES THAT IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO HAVE AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW BOARD UNDERTAKE A COMPRESENTIVE ASSESSMENT OF THE STABILITY OF THE NORTH SPUR". This is a quote from retired engineer Jim Gordon, on Vision 2041 blog today. Readers may recall Gordon's initial concern of the safety of the North Spur, and then a reversal, but with some reservation, based on incomplete information from Nalcor.
    Why the reversal? 3 reasons, two of which are results from data from the Independent Engineer review, just released, and the third, a inconsistantsy in data by Nalcor as discovered by Maurice Adams, that Gordon had missed.
    In particular the admission of actual quick clay having been discovered at the North Spur is a game changer , according to Gordon. And he says Gilbert Bennett denied existence of this as late as Sept, but it was known back in January. And Gordon says the slopes of the upstream side is inappropriate for safety, and the the removal of material on the downstream side of the Spur actually removes material that would tend to counter a slide there. He indicates that the safety of personel working there is a risk , as a failure may be sudden.
    Keep in mind also the Swedish engineer,a quick clay expert, brought to St Johns, last year, who stated that in Sweden they would never build a dam where there is a quick clay risk. Here we tend to "roll the dice" it seems.
    Personally, I long had serious concerns as to the North Spur stability issue,raised by Cabot Martin, and followed both Maurice's and Jim Gordons opinion with keen interest. Indeed, engineering analysis done in the 1960s had raised concerns.
    As Gordon says , this is a 'game changer", or it seems that way. But when has Nalcor admitted to any false assumption made. And has there been deliberate concealment of information while proceeding with construction with possible inadequate design? How can we trust Nalcor's judgement or even their paid consultants given this latest twist. Very unsettling.
    Winston Adams . Logy Bay

  7. The Muskrat train is off the tracks. It makes no sense to keep the throttle to the floor when you are sliding off the rails.

    Stop it now and do the analysis that has been hidden from the start. With all the unresolved problems like the towers, the all weather roads needed, the wire defects still unresolved, the IE spreading alarm about the spur quick clay, the coffer dam fiasco,the contract uncertainty etc. it is madness not stopping and taking stock.

    It is fiscal madness to keep spending when no one at Nalcor is responsive or shows any competence. An overpaid part time Nalcor CEO and an absent board chair alone should invoke fear and loathing.

    The horror must be stopped and there is no better time than now!

  8. Your challenge to the native leaders is spot on Uncle Gnarley.

    They need to step up and cough up money for a legal defence of the Land protectors charged. It was the selfless acts of the protectors that got them together and to the table. Showing a fawning pride for a process that was far from nation to nation dialogue is a disgrace. NL set the agenda and would discuss nothing else. Paying for a test case citing the defence of necessity is the least they can do. The actions of the protectors satisfy all the elements of that defence. They need to step up, open their cheque books and stiffen their spines.

    So far leaders they are not.

  9. Just to say: a Telegram reporter or journalist was contacted some time ago as to their interest in interviewing a worker who was there at the time of the concrete form failure, where men were lucky not to have been injured or killed. Zero interest from the Telegram. THE PEOPLES PAPER. Sure. Make no wonder their subscriptions are declining. Blogs are more newsworthy, and no advertising. Russell reads this blog. If he asks via this blog, I will name the reporter journalist.

  10. Early on, this project reminded me of a project described in my father`s unpublished journals, titled `The salvage of the Village Belle` The first line reads: It happened to me in the spring of 1913. He joined an expedition of 500 men to go into the Hudson Bay, to the Nelson River, Manitoba. On page 22 he describes the great progress over the summer of the camp construction including a narrow gauge rail laid all around the place in preparation for the building of the pier “ as the specifications called for a pier, and breakwater, to be built, a mile long,toward the centre of the river, then build an island, half a mile square,on which to build grain elevators:a tremendous undertaking, that finally had to be abandoned, after four years, and at a cost of several million dollars“.
    This project had up to 1000 men working, many from Nfld. A railroad was being built also to link this with Winnipeg.The aim, to ship grain to Europe, and bypass Quebec (sound familiar)
    The journal goes on to say“Before freeze up that year the pier had extended our 1000 feet into the river. but when spring opened, and the ice started to run down the river, the structure was all swept away, out in the bay, and the work started all over again.“
    For me,having worked on the Upper Churchill project, and as a engineer with Nfld Hydro, I have had many concerns about the Muskrat project from a technical and economic perspective. But only since the cofferdam leak and Stan Marshall announcement that the inability of installing the ice flow prevention cables, and risk to the structure, did I realize the possibility of ice flow damage. I thought this rather a remote risk. And granted , we have concrete whereas the Nelson River ice took out mostly timbered construction. Nevertheless, we should not underestimate the power of Mighty Churchill to do significant damage. The Nelson project was an ill conceived political project, that engineers thought from the start would be a failure. Fortunately, the Canadian government was more financially sound than Nfld is now, so their loss was absorbed. Any lesson here, I wonder!
    Winston Adams

  11. An interested observer in Happy Valley pointed out two years ago to the Nalcor Quality Manager Mark Peddle when early shipments of rebar were arriving through Quebec (likely garbage Asian material) for the early foundation work that random rebar samples must be taken and physical and chemical analysis done. The response from the Quality Manager was that the contracting strategy for quality control was"self performing". The Observer was stunned and replied that based on their decades of major project experience replied "that is not the way it is done". Now if you recognize that we are talking rebar, just imagine what can show up as engineered equipment due to an a lack of appropriate third party inspection program. First tier suppliers like Andritz can/will supply third material if appropriate protocols are not in place.

  12. Des


    You have done a great service here. Would you consider publishing a year end summary of the Muskrat issue, summarizing the major bits of information, (Facts), analysis, problems and conclusions. This would be of greater benefit in reaching a wider readership.

    Thanks and Season's Greetings to all.

  13. The Professional Engineers association needs to act NOW and demand a full review of the safety of this project with respect to the downstream inhabitants. It is well within thier mandate and is their responsibility to the public to raise this concern and see that it is addressed. This goes beyond project management and is an immediate public health and safety issue. I am not a Professional Engineer and cannot comment on any of the disturbing things I see in the IE report but as a memenr of the concerned public I am demanding the the governing body of the Professional Engineers respond to the concern of many in this regard. I have little faith in The Minister Responsible for Dam Safety and even less in the executives of Nalcor to ensure that downstream inhabitants are safe from failure(s) of the structures being built above them. The time to act is NOW.

    John D Pippy B.Eng (Civil) MBA

    • John,

      With all due respect the safety review that you are suggesting is a great idea. It would be best done largely by out of Province professionals, perhaps a team from jurisdictions with major hydro experience. ie Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia.

    • PEGNL only exists because of the Engineers and Geoscientists Act, 2008. If I had the power, I would abolish it. Within government, engineers do not need to be members nor are engineers reimbursed for the cost of membership. The NL government itself considers PEGNL to be of little value. One of the current board members of PEGNL currently serves as director of design and construction at the department of education. Readers of this blog probably remember the wall collapse at Roncalli school or the missing structural steel in the new high school. Nothing was investigated and nobody lost their job.

      The PEGNL ethics exam is borrowed from Alberta, anyone can pass away four years as a paper pusher and get qualify for a P.ENG. and from there, you can practice anything if you feel qualified. An electrical and computer science engineer can legally do structural work for example. By comparison, other professions such as architecture are vastly more rigorous in determining if you had the appropriate mentoring.

      Since engineering is a broad discipline like information technology, I'd rather see no regulation and that firms hired engineers based on their track record. For a mega project, I would hire someone that had been on several successful mega projects and would look at examples of his/her design work. Similarly, if I was implementing a government wide IT system, I would not be looking for someone that had a CS degree, but rather people that had recently implement similar projects and even then, I'd carefully check references to understand the role that person played.

      The engineering profession in NL, it is sort of like club membership that means no more than you earned at lest the minimum passing grade at MUN (60%). Members protect members and standards are almost existent.

      I am writing this because I want the public to know that there is no fatherly watch dog professional organization looking after the greater good in NL. While other provinces may have such organizations, I can't see them interfering with another province – but would certainly welcome it in this case. Hey APEGA and PEO — there is at least one engineer in Newfoundland that would support you 100% in remedying this sorry state of affairs.

      In the meantime, this project can only be stopped via political means.

  14. Further to my earlier comment on ice damage on the Nelson River project I will add the following that some readers may find of interest:
    The project site was called Port Nelson. My father signed on at 25 cents an hour, an engineers pay in those days. My father`s (Capt. Esau Adams, a Master Mariner) journals says they travelled into Hudson Bay on the SS Bonaventure, and “the cabin was occupied by a group of civil engineers, in charge of a man that came from Ottawa,and had full charge of the expedition…..and I have thought since, that this man, fully realised then, that he was undertaking an impossible task, as four years later it proved to be; for the place had to be condemned“
    His journals do not relate the following, which I have researched. After the ice damage and the impossibility of achieving the intended design, this engineer redesigned the plan: to locate this artificial island much further out into the bay to avoid the spring ice damage. This required a series of 17 steel bridges to reach this man made island. If you google “Port Nelson bridge images“ you can see , still standing today this man made island and all the bridges, largely still intact. A monument to the skill of this engineer and the workers of that era. Yet it was still a failure, owing to shallow water and many ships being lost to reach this destination, just a poorly selected site. The colour pictures online are amazing.
    Lesson being: even the best engineers and workers can`t overcome fundamental serious problems that were known from day one.
    Again, my father journal as to arriving at the site in 1913: “After 6 weeks we dropped anchor at the mouth of the Nelson River….now this was the place they had decided upon to build a terminus and erect elevators and behold such a place! The river here was more than 3 miles wide, very shallow, with large boulders showing everywhere, with the tide running at least 8 knots per hour , and open water for only 3 months. The tide here had a rise and fall of twenty one feet, and on a low flat country, with no rock to be seen; looked a hopeless undertaking to me, as I saw it, but this was not a concern to me, I was glad to be in the open country, away from city life, and this was what I wanted and longed for.“
    My father, an adventurer,(not unlike Des Sullivan) then 24 years old. Check out the pictures mentioned, terrific beauty and many Nflders worked there……an project little known about.
    Winston Adams, Logy Bay

  15. The so-called Independent Engineer's Report was issued on November 2nd, 2016 and was based upon meetings and a site inspection dated July 11 to 15th, 2016.
    My question is whether the information on the leaking cofferdam is foresight or retroactive hindsight? Also, why does it take three and a half months to issue a project progress report in 2016?