People who live downstream from the North Spur dam fear the worst after a landslide occurred on the Lower Churchill River Saturday evening.
“We’re basically living in fear,” said Mud Lake resident Craig Chaulk. “We have been uneasy ever since the flood of last spring, and this … enhances our fears.”
Nalcor issued a statement about the landslide Sunday morning. Spokeswoman Karen O’Neill says Nalcor’s geotechnical engineering team is aware of the landslide, but says there is no risk to the North Spur dam or Muskrat Falls facilities or operations.
“Nalcor is aware of a slide that occurred on the North side of the lower Churchill river. This area is downstream (east) of the North Spur and is outside of the North Spur dam stabilization area,” O’Neill wrote in an emailed statement.
She said that landslides along the Churchill River are “fairly common.” The North Spur is a hill that connects Spirit Mountain to the north shore at Muskrat Falls. It rests on a foundation of marine clay that experts have said is likely to be involved in landslides.
“Significant work has been completed to reinforce the North Spur dam and this is no safety risk in relation to the North Spur or the Muskrat Falls facilities as a result of this recent slide,” wrote O’Neill.
However, Nalcor’s statement does not sit well with residents in the area.
“They downplay everything that happens there,” said Chaulk. “As far as I’m concerned, they just take it too lightly.”
Chaulk says he would like to see Nalcor lower the water levels in the reservoir as a precautionary measure.
“The point is, we don’t trust what they say. We don’t trust them because they have refused time and time again to give information when we’ve asked for it.”
“What I would like to see is for them to immediately start drawing down the water from the reservoir in a slow and controlled manner so it doesn’t cause any adverse effects downstream.
“They have the water elevated to 23.5 metres now, and the normal level for this time of year is in the range of 18 to 20 metres. So, there’s excess water there already, and I think they should bring it back to normal levels until this site can be thoroughly looked at and assessed for any more possible slides.”
Another area resident, Roberta Benefiel, says she was at the exact spot where the landslide occurred just last year. She notes that the area had been previously pointed out as a potential spot where the North Spur might fail because it’s made up mostly of clay.
“All that clay goes all the way from the North Spur out to the Trans-Labrador Highway,” she said.
Residents in the area have been protesting for years that the dam site is in a danger zone, but the landslide on Saturday adds another layer to the mistrust people there have developed of Nalcor.
“Nalcor is probably going to say, ‘Oh you know, these landslides have been happening on this river for centuries,’ and they have, which is exactly the reason why we’re concerned,” said Benefiel. “The point is, we don’t trust what they say. We don’t trust them because they have refused time and time again to give information when we’ve asked for it.”
Denise Cole is with Labrador Land Protectors. She says people who live in the area want an independent review of the North Spur. In May of last year, Land Protectors presented Premier Dwight Ball with more than 1,000 signatures from people living downstream all calling for an independent review.
“Government never responded to that request,” she wrote in an message to The Telegram on Sunday.
“When will they finally be held accountable!?” she wrote. “Was the flooding of Mud Lake this past spring not enough? Will it take a disaster with lives lost for them to finally take action? Nalcor could ask for and encourage this independent review. If they have confidence, then let the other experts in. Make the rest of us as confident.”
Roberta Benefiel echoes these concerns and wonders why Nalcor has not requested an independent review.
“Why do that to the people who are going to pay this bill, and who are downstream and could end up being washed away in their beds? Why do that? What kind of mind would do that? What kind of government would allow it? I can’t go there,” she said.
Meanwhile, Benefiel and Chaulk plan to visit Nalcor today to ask if they can access the area and have a look at the landslide.
— With files from Deb Squires