Hydro-Quebec knew as early as 1980 that its power grid had ultra-fragile components that snapped too easily in a storm, according to a document obtained by The Nation.

The brittle components were later to crack in droves in the 1998 ice storm, causing numerous Hydro-Quebec high-voltage transmission towers to collapse prematurely.

The failure of the towers caused the worst recorded disaster in Canada’s history, which claimed 30 lives and cost $3 billion.

Hydro’s engineers knew almost 20 years ago their power network was vulnerable. In the summer of 1980, two of the utility’s senior engineers flew to Paris to deliver a paper at the prestigious International Conference on Large High-Voltage Electric Systems.

The two engineers, Denis Lecomte and Paul Meyere-both of whom eventually rose to the position of chief transmission line engineer – reported serious problems with a few of the thousands of components that make up Hydro-Quebec’s power grid, namely porcelain insulators and U-boits.

These little parts are crucial to the stability of the power system. If just one insulator on a transmission tower breaks, a power line several kilometres long can be short-circuited. A single cracked insulator can also cause a 730,000-volt tower to collapse, dragging down other towers with it; a 730,000-volt tower has 210 to 800-plus insulators.

Lecomte and Meyere told the conference the components used by Hydro-Quebec were defective. The insulators constantly had to be replaced and were “subject to rapid aging,” said the two men.

As for the U-bolts, they “showed brittleness problems” and couldn’t withstand strong winds. Already, the Hydro-Quebec engineers said, a ruptured U-bolt had caused two 730,000-volt transmission towers to collapse.

Since 1980, there is little evidence the warnings were heeded. When the Ice storm hit last year, the parts were still in place.

“These aren’t anomalies that could jeopardize the system,” said Jean-Claude Lefebvre, spokesman for Hydro-Quebec.

“It’s a problem of premature breaks. You just have to replace (the parts) more often.”

The Nicolet commission, created to investigate the ice storm, said Hydro-Quebec’s lines fell down long before they had accumulated the maximum amount of ice they were designed to carry. In many cases, the inquiry blamed the collapsed lines on small components like the porcelain insulators.

Lefebvre said Hydro spent $6 million replacing the porcelain insulators since 1980. But he said Hydro replaced them with the same type of extra-fragile insulator. Lefebvre also denied that any towers had ever fallen due to the easily broken parts.

In other utility news, Hydro-Quebec refused our access-to-information request for maintenance and inspection reports for the power network in the areas affected by the ice storm. The utility said some of the data was erased from its databanks. The Nicolet inquiry also complained of being refused the same information.

But Lefebvre said a mistake was made. He flatly denied that the Nicolet commission ever asked for the maintenance reports.

And he said the data wasn’t erased after all. We’ve filed another access request for the information.