A gigantic leaking tank, a six-storey tall structure made of concrete and tile, may be partly to blame for delays in getting SaskPower's carbon capture plant up and running.
The tank, described by the crown corporation as "one of the major components in SaskPower's carbon capture and storage process," holds more than a million pounds of amine solution. That's the chemical and water mixture the facility uses to capture CO2.
SaskPower's manager of engineering on the project, Doug Daverne said fluid began seeping from the tank more than a year ago, shortly before the project's grand opening.
"It was attempted to be repaired, grouted and those sorts of things — and just couldn't get the last of the seepage to stop," explained Daverne. It was replaced a few weeks ago.
He said there's a containment system around the tank, so the fluid didn't leak into the soil.
Leaking tank part of a larger dispute
The tank was installed by SNC Lavalin, which was contracted to engineer, procure and build the carbon capture facility. The tank was supplied by a third party.
Last week, the NDP unveiled internal SaskPower documents which show the plant has been running at just 40 per cent capacity.
One briefing note claims the SNC-built facility has "serious design flaws." It went on to claim that "SNC has been very slow to address basic design problems."
The two sides are now in a dispute resolution process.
Daverne said the leaking tank did not contribute to SaskPower's ongoing capacity problems, but he does believe it contributed to delays in the early days of the project, shortly before its grand opening last fall.
However, because of the ongoing dispute, he was reluctant to be specific.
"I think there are others that will ultimately assess the extent to which this contributed to that," Daverne explained. "Certainly it was a factor, in our opinion, to the timelines around startup."
Cause of the failure under review
Daverne said the cause of the tank's failure is being examined. But he said it's not a problem with the design overall. He said the container is widely used in other industries. He said the problem appeared to be just with this particular unit.
"That is a complicated technical question that I think is still under discussion between SNC Lavalin and the supplier of their tank," Daverne said.
He said the concrete and tile material was chosen because it is known to be corrosion resistant, and it's unfortunate that it failed.
"It's one item that has required extra effort that we didn't originally contemplate."
Stainless steel replacement tank installed by SNC Lavalin
A few weeks ago, a new double-walled stainless steel tank was delivered to the Boundary Dam project near Estevan. Sask. The roof was taken off the facility and the new tank was inserted inside the old one.
Daverne said tests show the new tank is leak-free.
He said the cost of replacement will be in the millions and will be entirely borne by SNC Lavalin.
CBC put this claim to SNC Lavalin. While it didn't respond specifically to questions about the tank in a written statement it said, "SNC Lavalin believes that if there are any areas for discussion around contractual points, the resolution process required in the relevant contracts is the best venue to resolve such issues."
SNC also offered more general comments about the ongoing dispute regarding its work on the carbon capture plant.
"The SaskPower Boundary Dam project is a first of its kind, and many issues could only be identified and corrected once the plant was operational by our client SaskPower," said a written statement.
"SNC Lavalin has been addressing all issues on a priority basis as they have come to our attention."
US-based magazine flags tank troubles as cause for concern
A recent article on POWER Magazine's website raised the issue of the failed tank as one obvious example of significant problems with the facility.
The editor of the magazine, Gail Reitenbach, noticed a September 14, 2015 press release from SaskPower, which announced it would be transporting the gigantic stainless steel replacement tank to Boundary Dam on Saskatchewan highways.
"That news should have been a clear indication that something major was amiss at the facility."
Reitenbach said the level of problems at the facility are cause for concern.
"Although some fine-tuning is to be expected with any first-of-a-kind technology, the problems at Boundary Dam appear to be more substantial than anyone outside the company was aware of."
Just three months ago, Power Magazine named SaskPower's carbon capture facility "plant of the year": the magazine's highest award.
A news release on August 3, 2015 said, "If you're wondering what the future of coal-fired generation might look like, take a look at this plant."
Reitenbach wrote that in May of this year when the magazine visited the plant, officials did indicate that there were some problems with it.
"However, the impression was that the issues to be resolved were more along the lines of a "punch list" rather than fundamental, operationally crippling problems, which is clearly the case if the capture facility's availability is only around 40 per cent," Reitenbach wrote.
More problems than expected with carbon capture plant, says engineer
Daverne said because this facility is the first of its kind, the entire team was expecting to face challenges with various aspects of the new technology.
However, he says the sheer number of problems has been surprising.
"I would agree that it's a significant number of items — more than I would have anticipated."
For example, Daverne said he would not have expected the tank, which is not "ground-breaking technology," to have seepage problems.
He said managing the engineering side of this $1.5 billion project has had its share of stresses.
"Sometimes I sleep well. Sometimes I don't sleep so well," Daverne said, laughing.
He says this is an important project for the province and he hopes to have all the technical issues dealt with soon.
He said he's expecting "a higher output and a more reliable operation. But not perfection."