Mega Canadian Hydro Project Moves Forward Despite Surprises, Bitter Cold
October in northern Manitoba means daily dips into subzero temperatures and frequent dustings of snow. For most construction jobsites, it also might mean it’s time to start sending workers home until temperatures rise again in the late spring.
But here, at Keeyask Generating Station work camp, 725 kilometers from Winnipeg and 10º south of the Arctic Circle, workers will stay through the winter, placing concrete and continuing construction of a powerhouse, dams, dikes and a tailrace for Manitoba Hydro’s latest hydroelectric facility on the Nelson River, in temperatures that will likely reach as low as -40º C with wind chill as low as -70º C (-94º F).
It will be the second year in a row that the joint venture of Bechtel Barnard and EllisDon (BBE) will work through the frigid weather. “It’s not common to work through the winter,” says Bechtel’s Jacob Mumm, a BBE project manager. “Talking to other construction managers, it’s sacrilegious.”
But the alternative is losing established work teams and likely falling behind on the work schedule.
The decision to work during the 2017-18 season paid off for BBE. Managers say with continued innovative placements and a second season of winter work, they expect to have most of the concrete placed by 2019, and the job complete by its target date in 2021. Manitoba Hydro, a crown corporation owned by the province of Manitoba, has expressed confidence that the cost will remain at 8.7 billion Canadian dollars ($6.63 billion). That’s about CA$2 billion ($1.56 billion) over the original budget, but not rising to the CA$10 billion ($7.6 billion) that consultants had warned.
“We made hay,” says Mumm of the winter work. “We did really well and improved on milestones for the schedule. We’re ahead of schedule for the in-service date for the first unit.”
The 695-MW Keeyask hydroelectric plant will be Manitoba Hydro’s sixth hydro project on the Nelson River, which flows north, draining Lake Winnipeg into the Hudson Bay.
Manitoba Hydro’s first project on the river, the 287-MW Kelsey Generating Station, was completed in 1957. The most recent, the 1,330-MW Limestone Generating Station, was completed in 1990 by Bechtel.
Keeyask is a relatively low-head dam that will use 18 meters of the 27-m drop known as Gull Rapids. While the elevation drop at the site makes it good for hydroelectricity, the width of the river and the remoteness of the site make the job challenging. At the site of the dam, the Nelson River is about 2 km wide.
Because of the width, Hatch consulting engineers designed the seven-unit powerhouse separate from a seven-gate spillway. It’s an unusual configuration for hydro facilities, which typically have adjacent spillways and powerhouses. At Keeyask, the two structures are connected by earthen dams that also connect them to the riverbank and to a 23-km dike that will surround what will become a 93-sq-km reservoir with an operating level of 139.2 m.
All the material to build the dams comes from on-site borrow pits that were identified by Manitoba Hydro decades ago as it looked to develop the Nelson River for hydroelectricity. As of Sept. 12, the pits had supplied 3.5 million cu m of material for the permanent embankments. In fact, all sand, rock and clay needed for the job are mined on site, including for the 370,000 cu m of concrete needed to complete the spillway and powerhouse. “It’s home grown,” says Bechtel’s James “J.Q.” Hicks, BBE project manager.
Since construction started in 2014, almost 20 million cu m of material has been moved around site using Caterpillar 777 and 773 haul trucks. Without the on-site borrow pits, construction of the site “probably wouldn’t have been feasible,” says Barnard’s Mike Fuller, BBE construction manager.
As it is, everything else, from the roughly 2,000 laborers and support staff and 237 pieces of equipment—including 17 cranes—to the steel, and down to the toilet paper, must be hauled in on a 180-km-long dirt road from the city of Thompson. Getting to the site is a daylong affair. For many BBE workers, it begins with a chartered flight from Winnipeg to Thompson and then continues with a two- to three-hour bus ride on the dirt road. Most employees have a 21-days-on, seven-days-off work schedule.
BBE is handling all of the civil work at Keeyask, self-performing about 90%. The site operates 24/7 and is averaging 22 concrete placements a week. The fourth and fifth unit of the powerhouse should be enclosed in early 2019. The last structure to be completed will be the tailrace, to funnel water out of the powerhouse. Voith Hydro will separately provide and install the seven vertical propeller turbine generator units. The Keeyask Hydropower Limited Partnership has contracts for housing, food and other services—including for falconers who use their raptors to keep gulls off the worksite.
To compete for labor with other work camps, including at oil and gas projects in Alberta and two other hydro projects being built in Canada, the camp has hotel-like amenities, including a full-sized gym, movie theatres, arcade and other gaming systems, and pool tables. Each worker has his or her own room and bathroom. An on-site cafeteria provides food around the clock.
A second camp, on the south side of the river, is much more basic. With the completion of the last dam across the river, though, workers on the south side will be able to quickly access the northern camp that previously took three hours to reach.
Keeyask also has something that’s not commonly found on a jobsite: a sweat lodge. That’s because to build Keeyask, Manitoba Hydro partnered with the four aboriginal communities—the Tataskweyak, War Lake, York Factory and Fox Lake Cree—that have lived in the region for generations. The Cree people have had a voice in the design, construction and operation of the hydro project, and have 10% ownership.
The First Nation heritage is honored in regular ceremonies, such as an Aug. 31 event to commemorate the diversion of the river through the recently completed spillway. Notably, in 2015, workers were excavating a portion of the Nelson River bottom to create the powerhouse when one of the blasts revealed a grandfatherly face in the rock. A subsequent blast uncovered the likeness of a thunderbird nearby. As word spread throughout the camp in the boreal forest just south of the Arctic tundra, workers came to see the images, considered symbols of the Cree peoples.
“It was a very special time for a lot of the indigenous people,” says Fuller. “It really struck them, it was so visible,” says Fuller, who added that non-indigenous people were also moved by the images. Out of respect for the Cree, work on that section of the powerhouse temporarily stopped so workers could view the images. Several months later, a ceremony was held to honor the images.
According to a year-in-review report released in March by the owners, about 5,600 of the total 13,700 hires have been indigenous people. More than half of those were hired as laborers, carpenters or caterers. About 100 have been hired on the site to apprentice to a trade, Mumm says.
Yet a report released earlier this year says Manitoba Hydro and its contractors are not doing enough in their hiring of the indigenous people. The report, commissioned by Keeyask Hydro Limited Partnership, found that the contractors, including BBE, discriminated in their hiring of indigenous people.
“Workers felt that contractors were able to manipulate the [job referral system] and screen in preferred workers while being able to screen out others such that in particular job areas there was a disproportionate number of workers from a particular company or in some instances close friends and relatives,” the report states
Since the report was completed, the Keeyask partnership and BBE have improved their efforts to hire more First Nations workers and reduce harassment at the campsite. The Keeyask partnership says it has implemented or is implementing all of the report’s 64 recommendations.
In response to the report, a BBE spokesperson said, “We have been responsive by strengthening our commitment to providing a positive, respectful and safe workplace for all our people, and firmly embedding fair treatment and equal opportunity in Keeyask’s culture.”
BBE has a mandate to hire indigenous workers first, Manitoba workers second and workers from other provinces third. Because Manitoba has a relatively small population, many of the workers are from outside the province, Mumm says. Bringing together workers from throughout the country required some finesse because each province has different laws and requirements, but overall, Mumm says, the workforce is “phenomenal.”
“They are some of the best craftspeople I’ve seen in 30 years,” agreed Fuller.
But because of the short work season—from about June to October—BBE was losing a chunk of those workers every year when the site closed down. By the time teams had gelled, it was time to send them home for the winter. When hiring began for the next season, many of the workers had moved on to other jobs. “The learning curve is pretty steep,” says Fuller. But he and others noticed that once teams came together and productivity hit a high, it was maintained, even as temperatures began dropping. The benefit of keeping those teams together factored into the decision to keep working through last winter. The site shut down for just a few weeks from December 2017 to February 2018.
BBE took a lean approach to winter hoarding to keep the costs low. Crews placed lightweight temporary steel columns on top of three powerhouse units that were partially completed, and double tarps were used to enclose the structures. Insulation and hundreds of diesel heaters kept interior temperatures at about 10º C.
Still, the work was challenging. “Almost nothing cooperates in -40 degrees,” says Mumm. Freezing temperatures are really hard on equipment, he added.
During the cold season, about 900 workers worked in the powerhouse, while another about 700 worked elsewhere around the site. The crew placed more than 20,000 cu m of concrete in temperatures as low as -35º C. The winter work has helped BBE recover from a critical consultant’s report compiled by MGF Project Services for the Manitoba Public Utilities Board. That report, released in December, criticized BBE’s slow pace of work and the cost-reimbursable nature of the contract, which MGF said provided BBE “little incentive to actually perform the work.” It recommended that Manitoba Hydro increase its oversight over BBE.
While the original contract with BBE was for CA$1.4 billion ($1 billion), a more realistic price would have been CA$1.8 billion to CA$2.2 billion ($1.4 billion to $1.7 billion), MGF said. The original contract has been amended but still uses the same cost-reimbursement formula, according to MGF:
“In our opinion the most significant issue for the project is the almost 100% decoupling of work performance from payment by paying actual costs instead of quantities-times-unit-prices for actual work done.”
Manitoba Hydro spokesman Bruce Owen said “we continue to make improvements to oversight and productivity with BBE.”
BBE also points to improvements, including completing the river diversion through the spillway 45 days ahead of schedule.
Mumm and Fuller say the geology of the riverbed is largely to blame for the cost overruns and schedule slippage. After cofferdams were built and water was drained out of the river, there was a moonscape surface that required months of labor to remove the infirm rock—often with jackhammers and hand tools—to create a smooth surface to build upon. BBE started instream work in July 2014. The crew was still “licking the rock,” as the work is called, into the second quarter of 2018.
One crater was so deep, the footprint of the central dam had to be moved. “The design contemplated this [river bed] being nice and smooth,” says Mumm. That massive amount of earthwork “increased quantities drastically,” he says.
Other surprises added to the work, including having to raise the height of cofferdam embankments after ice booms broke during the first winter of construction and 15-ft-thick sheets of ice flowed downstream and onto the worksite. “These are the kind of things that cost,” Mumm says. “We lost time.”
Keeyask isn’t the only project facing scrutiny. In July, Manitoba Hydro completed work on a 1,384-km, high-voltage, direct-current transmission line that will move Keeyask’s power from nearby Gillam to Winnipeg. Rokstad, formerly partially owned by Carillion, was the primary contractor on the line, called Bipole III. Originally expected to cost about CA$2.25 billion ($1.72 billion), the line was completed at a cost of CA$5 billion ($3.8 billion). On Oct. 18 the province appointed former British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell to conduct a review of the Keeyask and Bipole projects over the next year.
The projects were approved when a then-growing industrial sector in neighboring provinces, as well as CA$4.5 billion ($3.4 billion) in export contracts, supported the rationale for the projects. But since then, development of projects in the Canadian oil sands has contracted, and U.S. utilities, like Minnesota-based Xcel, which is contracted to purchase hydropower from Manitoba Hydro through 2025, have begun developing solar and wind power.
Manitoba Hydro says Keeyask still will be necessary to serve its customers by 2033 and will allow wholesale customers to integrate wind into their system. “That, coupled with the long life of hydroelectric facilities (over 100 years), means we still see tremendous value in these hydropower projects moving forward,” says Owen.
Work aside, Mumm, Hicks and Fuller—who have worked around the world—like to talk about the uniqueness of the Keeyask site. The bitter cold is countered by northern lights that glow in the winter and arctic foxes that steal leather gloves out of workers’ hands. Many workers have bear or moose encounters—and pictures—to share. Wolves have been spotted, and wolverine tracks have been seen.
Hugo Mejias, BBE’s environmental manager, drives around the site showing where bears have been spotted, and highlighting the efforts his team is making to keep the site in compliance with the law and with the spirit of the Cree nation. Evidence of fur trading from 300 years ago, including muskets and tea cups from England, has been found on the site.
“It’s very special up here,” says Mumm. “It just feels different.”