A collapsed formworks incident on the Muskrat Falls project in
2017 exposed the public to problems unrelated to either cost or schedule overruns.
When one worker was hospitalized and another seven received medical assistance
it became clear, as much as Nalcor did its best to hide the fact, that Nalcor’s
management problems resided not just in the St. John’s Office, but also extended to
‘boots on the ground’.
Not only the eight workers, some buried up to their necks in
cement, can count themselves lucky. Nalcor management, too, were spared what
the Courts might have deemed criminal negligence.
Why is the issue relevant again? Last week the Professional
Engineers and Geoscientists of Newfoundland and Labrador (PEGNL) issued a public notice, having
sanctioned one of their own. The notice read that structural engineer Yi Ping
(Peter) Liu had allowed “his seal to be applied to the structural calculations
and design documents of the Draft Tube Elbow Wood Formworks for the Lower
Churchill Project at Muskrat Falls….which contained material errors in design
criteria and design calculations and ultimately contributed to failure of the
PEGNL treatment of the issue, insofar as Mr. Liu’s specific
involvement is concerned, seems to have been appropriate, including the penalty
meted out. Unfortunately, the casual observer might be inclined to think that
PEGNL had executed its responsibilities – case closed. I suggest that there is
an alternative view and that Mr. Liu’s error – egregious as it may have been –
is not the whole story.
Indeed, the failure of PEGNL to assess the role played by
other Members of the engineering profession in the incident’s occurrence, leaves
an odor that reeks of minimalism and a penchant for cuckolding Nalcor – to whom
they and many engineering companies are beholden.
aDB, a structural
engineering consultancy, conducted Nalcor’s investigation and came to this
This is an odd construction of the Consultant’s findings to be
sure because very quickly part (V) – a combination of the first four reasons – is
an obvious determination.
Back in May 2017, I asked James L. Gordon, a renowned Canadian
hydro engineer who has written copious articles for this Blog, to review the
aDB Report which he did in a post entitled Engineers’ Competence to Practice Questioned. You may wish to be reminded of his comments, many of which are disturbing. Said Mr. Gordon:
|James L. Gordon, P. Eng. (Retired)|
“On May 1st, I read with mounting astonishment the aDB
Engineering report dated April 20, 2017, on their investigations into the
causes of the collapse, which occurred on 29th May, 2016.
“The level of incompetence described in the report is so
widespread that it brings into question the integrity of all other structures
in the development. All staff, from carpenters to engineers are included within
the ranks of the incompetent. The sub-standard construction was clearly visible
to all, but nothing was done to rectify the errors.
“The forms were supported with untreated southern pine
softwood timber lattice towers as shown in the Figure 2 obtained from the
Independent Engineer’s report dated July 2016.
“From the photographic evidence it is obvious to any observer
that the timber lattice towers were deficient and should never have been used
to support a heavy load of concrete.
“There were 6 towers supporting the forms, and all collapsed.
The failure destroyed all evidence, hence the report was based on observations
of the condition of the lattice towers in the other units.
“The list of unacceptable work is long, with details as
1. Flooding up to about 3 feet above the tower
and decayed wood in towers with mushroom growth.
of the untreated wood to rain and snow.
weathering, with some weathering occurring during storage at site.
5. Ice built
up between ribs, in June!
of tower timbers.
Compression failure in some towers.
between timbers and lack of shims at top.
9. Wood saw
marks indicating no quality control at the fabrication plant.
10. Incorrect alignment of some towers.
11. Inadequate nailing of braces.
12. Splices not conforming to CSA standards.
13. No protection of the untreated lumber on site
prior to installation of the towers
from fabrication in summer of 2014, to
use in the spring of 2016.
14. Tower load calculated at 57,700 lbs,
and capacity at 40,500 lbs.
15. No allowance for expansion of the
timber due to moisture retention,
compromising structural integrity.
“From the foregoing, it is obvious that there was no quality
control at the fabrication plant and on site, and no NALCOR staff with
sufficient experience to realize that the towers were totally inadequate. This
is astonishing, since any carpenter looking at the towers would conclude that
something was wrong.
|FIGURE 5 – DRY ROT AND
INADEQUATE SHIMS. TIMBERS ARE 2” X 10”
“Also, an engineer looking at the towers would immediately observe
the errors in fabrication, installation and deterioration due to weathering.
This indicates that either no engineers inspected the structure, an almost
impossible conclusion, or, more likely, they were totally inexperienced to such
an extent that their competence to practice engineering in Newfoundland should
Bluntly stated, Jim Gordon’s comments constitute an indictment
of more than just the design engineer of these formworks, Mr. Liu. Indeed, this
construction required cross-discipline engineering skills as well as those of
the trades. They include those associated with quality control. Taken
together the massive failure describes, as Jim Gordon suggests, a level of incompetence
that seems endemic.
On the ground, supervisory staff didn’t even have the presence
of mind or, perhaps, the authority (they needed to contact someone in St.
John’s for that) to spray water on the wet cement, leaving it to harden – and impossible
to examine – to be painstakingly removed later at great expense.
Yet, only Mr. Liu is sanctioned. Where is mention of the Professional Engineers
who had a role in the construction, preservation, installation and inspection of
the formworks – and the associated support structures – some of whom signed-off
on the structure as fit for purpose? Why were they not hauled before the same disciplinary
Because only one complaint was filed and even that by an anonymous
engineer, requiring the PEGNL CEO and Registrar to be named as the Complainant?
How can this outcome be interpreted as any more than small-town
engineering politics, wherein PEGNL is afforded the perception of having
performed its duty as the lonely Mr. Liu is conveniently scapegoated while other
engineers find safety in PEGNL’s deference to Nalcor? $13 billion in and Mr.
Liu is the poster boy… for what? Likely for sham professional ethics. How
conveniently written must be the Adjudication Tribunal’s rules?
Related to this Article:
ENGINEERS’ COMPETENCE TO PRACTICE QUESTIONED by James L. Gordon, P. Eng. (Ret’d)
DRAGGING THE REPORT ON THE FORMWORKS COLLAPSE OUT OF NALCOR
Muskrat Falls watchers, including a bevy of professional
engineers, have long been concerned that far too many of their associates,
including some simultaneously holding positions at Nalcor and PEGNL, have been
delinquent in failing to maintain the Association’s separation – Nalcor unrelenting in building pervasive influence in the local market, and not just
among Engineering firms.
That PEGNL needs a good shaking up is abundantly clear and the
formworks incident is emblematic of the problems that need fixing.
There is another issue worth noting. The formworks incident
occurred May 29, 2016. Six weeks later, the Independent Engineer for the
Government of Canada was able to report the cause as “design issues,
faulty materials [including] dry rot…” The aDB Report on the incident
was dated April 20, 2017. Informed that a DRAFT Report was sitting on Project
Director Paul Harrington’s desk for quite some time, an application under
ATIPPA was issued by this writer on December 9, 2016. Nalcor replied that the
investigation was “not yet complete.” On March 23, 2017 I issued a second
ATIPPA request for the Report which received this reply:
When a Report of a potentially catastrophic incident is
allowed to remain out of the public’s clutch for months solely because it
contains a foot-dragging signature called “Draft”, only to be reluctantly
released more than a year after the incident, what does it say about the fundamental
matter of the public interest, the urgency surrounding matters of professional
competence (forget ethics), and the related issue of worker safety? What does
it say about the culture of safety at Nalcor?
It is hard to have regard for Nalcor’s much heralded “safety
moment” when real – and potentially tragic – life safety issues are obscured
because they might cast a heavier shadow on an already embarrassing Crown
If Mr. Liu’s errors were judged by Nalcor’s alacrity to have
him answer to his peers, in all likelihood any notion of sanction would have
been deep-sixed. Luckily, there is an ATIPPA process, however imperfect, else
the “Draft” Report might have disappeared from Mr. Harrington’s desk, having
fallen into his waste basket.
Indeed, PEGNL’s sanction of the singular Mr. Au – was arrived
a full two years after the incident – during which he could still practice unfettered as a Structural Engineer. This only compounds the perception of a
group undeserving of self-regulation, at least in this case.
Of course, as long as Nalcor holds those purse strings, and
the Government condones the power structures it has built to give itself
protection, don’t expect PEGNL to kick up any dust. That just wouldn’t be
professional, would it.
References cited in this Article:
SUMMARY OF ADJUDICATION TRIAL DECISION – Formworks Collapse (PEGNL)
aDB Muskrat Falls Draft tube 2 Investigation Report Report-Section.pdf