A magnificent dam job

David Thomas August 6 1979

A magnificent dam job

David Thomas August 6 1979

A magnificent dam job

David Thomas

Deep, 460 feet deep, beneath the alien taiga, two jet-powered hours north of Montreal, a legion of helmeted Quebeckers manhandles, bolts and welds into being the continent’s mightiest, cleanest, safest and cheapest energy machine. Above this man-hewn cavern, the cold flow of La Grande Riviere is blocked, held to ransom by a colossal trap of dams and dikes that force its waters to dilate across the low, scarred land. While seismic instruments measure the tremors set off by the enormous weight of the growing lake and satellites high above monitor the water’s expansion, La Grande climbs impatiently against the main dam 75 miles upstream from James Bay. Its only escape is over the tiered spillway, three times taller than Niagara Falls, sculpted by dynamite from the bedrock and opened for the first time in June to slow the reservoir’s rise.

This is LG-2, the prosaically named nucleus of Quebec’s James Bay hydro-

electric development, a project of such immensity that it empties the dictionary of superlatives and ranks with the world’s largest with its 5,328-megawatt generating capacity.* This July and August, construction activity is at a neverto-be-repeated peak, as 16,500 men and women are deployed over a territory bigger than England to capture subarctic rivers and hijack their flow through the turbines of LG-2 and two other power stations under construction.

Oct. 27—four months ahead of the original schedule—Premier René

Lévesque will pull a switch, unleashing the pent-up waters to crash against LG-2’S orange turbines. Southward will surge the first power from a project announced just eight years ago by Lévesque’s predecessor, Robert Bourassa. While the rest of the world frets at its vulnerable dependence on oil and shudders at the consequences of more atomic power, the much-criticized James Bay

*More than twice the capacity of Egypt's High Aswan dam; ahead of Canada's largest, Churchill Falls, Labrador (5,225 megawatts); but less than the U.S.S.R. ’s Krasnoyarsk station (6,069 megawatts).

development is revealed as an ugly duckling whose magnificence emerges as it matures and stands for comparison with the alternatives.

The project’s image was dirtied by a barrage of complaints and incidents including a court injunction halting work briefly in 1973 to protect rights of native Cree Indians and Inuit. Eventually, the natives traded their rights for dollars and land and haven’t complained since, though some white critics still argue that the indigenous peoples were plundered of their birthrights. Environmentalists also lamented that vast tracts of muskeg and boreal forest would be sacrificed, though they failed to arouse much public concern for the doomed lichen and stunted spruce which carpet the territory. The worst came in March, 1974, when a group of workers rampaged at LG-2, destroying the camp and forcing an emergency evacuation by air of everyone on the site. Work was halted for 51 days—time that was recovered at a cost of $30 million in extra men and machinery.

But the project’s biggest public relations misfortune was its identification with Bourassa who, calling it “the project of the century,” counted on James Bay to relieve unemployment and divert Quebec’s emotional energies from the issue of independence. In reaction, the Parti Québécois and the province’s young intelligentsia attacked the project as a waste and argued that instead Quebec should build nuclear reactors. Then came the energy crisis. Following was the fall from grace of nuclear energy. By the time the PQ won power from Bourassa’s Liberals in November, 1976, the logic of James Bay was unassailable and the party’s pro-nuclear policy was unashamedly junked. But recognition of Bourassa’s wisdom is only grudging. Says Energy Minister Guy Joron: “James Bay was an excellent decision made for bad reasons.”

Sadly, Quebeckers and other Canadians, deluged by James Bay’s bad press at home, have been deprived of sharing in the awe and pride generated by this truly international undertaking: delegations from China have come to gape at the toil of giant trucks imported from Pakistan, directed by an Italian-Canadian consortium of contractors and financed by American and European brokers and bankers who, while critics denigrated the project at home, continued to bankroll it as a right-minded investment in an energy-craving world.

By 1985, when the first phase of James Bay construction is complete, the northern power stations will produce the same amount of energy in a year as

16 nuclear reactors the size of those now operating at Pickering, Ontario. Yet more dams and power houses equivalent to another 20 reactors will then be undertaken within the James Bay territory. Unlike nuclear power, James Bay hydroelectric energy consumes no fuel, leaves no waste and is as perpetual as rainfall. It is the most efficient way yet devised to tap solar energy that fuels the water cycle.

The economic sense of James Bay is as impressive as its physical size: in only 2V2 months of full operation, the current project will recover energy equivalent to the 7.8 million barrels of petroleum fuel consumed in its construction. Earnings are expected to pay for the project completely within 15 years, but rising energy rates could significantly reduce that time.

Inflation caused total cost estimates to climb to $16.2 billion in 1976 but then, astonishingly, cost predictions have dropped to $15.1 billion now. Among the reasons are Hydro-Quebec’s invention of a lower-cost pylon for transmission cables, the deferral of one power station and the project’s unexpectedly early generation of power and revenue. There

is another explanation: the high morale of workers and remarkable efficiency of contractors. Certainly, the pecuniary rewards are motivating: a $10-million bonus for finishing the LG-2 dam a year ahead of schedule was paid to the contracting consortium Impregilo and Spino and individual workers often earn more than $1,000 a week.

But money alone does not account for the evident swagger in the gait of the men and women taming Quebec’s northern frontier. They are a special breed of builders, growing in number and skill with each hydroelectric project. Some take on the land and climate, vacuuming, brushing and scouring the bedrock to provide immaculate foundation for James Bay’s 182 dams and dikes with a total length of 76 miles. The last time the land was so assailed was 10 millennia ago when Ice Age glaciers pulverized rock into powder which collected in deposits called moraine. This moraine, beige and as fine as icing sugar, is sifted by the dam builders and laid at the core of the water-stopping structures. Densely packed and protected by layers of crushed rock, the moraine is impervious and eliminates the need for concrete. It’s a method suited to the territory but one which involves an outlandish activity for the subarctic; artificial snow is sprayed over unfinished dams at the onset of winter to protect their humid moraine hearts from freezing.

Meanwhile, teams of linemen erect the 3,300 miles of transmission lines running south from James Bay. Working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, the line crews are delivered each day to their work site by helicopter where they are sometimes met by bears who have learned to steal lunch bags while the men are high in the cables. Pylon inspector Pierre Roy, 25 years old and earning $540 a week to check cable connections, says construction work in Montreal is not as fulfilling. “Down there, nobody gives a damn about their work. Here, work is all there is, so those who don’t like it, leave.” Even the manicured, high-heeled employees who answer phones or shuffle paper in LG-2’s prefabricated offices admit to getting more than just money from the experience. Says construction firm clerk Lina Massé: “When I see the dam I feel proud just like everyone else.” Massé, 23, had already spent eight months at LG-2 before returning this summer.

Dam sites become a habit. This is the fourth major power development for 41year-old Normand Boulay, who, as chief mechanical inspector for the James Bay Energy Corp., oversees the weighty but delicate task of assembling LG-2’s turbine-generator units. Says Boulay: “Three-quarters of the guys working here I’ve seen at other power projects. We’re like a tribe of nomadic Indians.” Switching similes, Boulay exalts his vocation: “We are like painters or sculptors who are driven to create.”

Jules Verne, at least, would understand: LG-2’s subterranean power plant, big enough to hold five football fields, is as fantastic as anything imagined by the author. It has already attracted the Canadian film company Astral Bellevue-Pathé Ltd. which is planning to produce a science-fiction feature in the depths of the LG-2.

But for most Quebeckers, the big spectacle will be the autumn inauguration of James Bay, now being planned as an explosion of self-glorification by a governing party which, when it was in opposition, seized every occasion to denigrate and diminish it. Partisan appro-

priation of the project appears all the more petty beside the modern reality of James Bay power: it is the work not of politicians but of La Grande Rivière and proud men and women whose audacious efforts are only now receiving their deserved appreciation.