© — Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
Normand Bechard, general project manager for SNC-Lavalin on the Lower Churchill development, is seen at the project office.
Nalcor Energy vice-president and Lower Churchill project leader Gilbert Bennett rejects any criticism of Nalcor's continued employment of SNC-Lavalin on the project.
"We have a high degree of respect for SNC-Lavalin's engineering capability, project management capability," Bennett said in an interview with The Telegram this week.
"They bring to us a team that they have assembled in order to take on the work, and I certainly have a high degree of confidence in their ability to do the work they've been contracted to do."
An engineering and construction company with offices in more than 100 countries, SNC-Lavalin is facing investigations both internationally and within Canada regarding allegations of improper expenditures, paying to obtain contracts. The allegations have not been proven in court. Bennett was asked if he had any reservations at all regarding SNC-Lavalin's involvement with the Lower Churchill project.
"No. No issues in that respect," he answered.
"In general terms, SNC-Lavalin is our engineering, procurement and construction management (EPCM) contractor. So the objective of all of our work since Decision Gate 2, back in November 2010, has been to establish the capital cost estimate, establish project schedule and be ready to move forward if we sanction the project," Bennett said.
The days have been focused on firming up initial, general estimates with detailed engineering and design work, as well as developing accurate lists of supply and service companies capable of meeting the project's needs.
Much of the work has been done at an office on Torbay Road in St. John's, a location last home to a call centre business and filled with hundreds of cubicle spaces.
The site houses the desks of about 350 people working on the Lower Churchill project, with 250 of those being SNC-Lavalin employees and about 100 Nalcor Energy employees.
"In many respects, they're side by side," Bennett said.
He explained there are some design basics for the different project components - including the powerhouse, the transmission line, the AC/DC converter stations - to be considered in creating the final blueprints and supply lists.
For each piece, Nalcor Energy employees take the basics and add on both general and detailed parameters.
"Then the engineering team at SNC-Lavalin will get into the detailed work, to give us the documents that lead to the contracts that lead to the construction that lead to the finished facility," Bennett said, noting Nalcor employees also have an "owner's oversight" role.
As for awarding contracts, he said the final decisions remain with Nalcor Energy.
"Ultimately, we make the award, but we're working as a team," Bennett said. "We always take a recommendation. I'd never say that we would frequently reconsider a decision. But at the end of the day, it's a significant decision and we all consider the factors relevant in that decision-making process."
A partner for construction
After walking through the project office, Normand Bechard, the general project manager for SNC-Lavalin on the Lower Churchill development, challenged the critics when asked about recent news stories involving the engineering and construction company.
"If SNC-Lavalin cannot be trusted (on the construction project), I don't know who can be trusted," he said.
"The knowledge is in SNC-Lavalin," Bechard said. "This is not an easy and small job. This is a huge job. and technically SNC-Lavalin has all the knowledge and we've got - in SNC-Lavalin - all the support we need to support Nalcor in (construction)."
From Nalcor or SNC-Lavalin, the staff at the Torbay Road office is made up mainly of engineers and of technicians capable of using digital design software, developing detailed design drawings and 3-D models of the Lower Churchill project components.
Berchard said the first engineers hired for the project were tackling the generating site at Muskrat Falls. Currently, SNC-Lavalin has about 80 people - civil engineers, mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, technicians - working specifically on the details of the generation site.
"If you look at the amount of concrete required for this powerhouse (at Muskrat Falls), this is one of the biggest powerhouses being built in Canada," he said.
Standing beside him, Bennett noted the build will require the equivalent of the amount of concrete required for three Hebron gravity base structures.
"That's a great comparison," Berchard replied.
The SNC-Lavalin team leader said the civil engineering demands of the powerhouse have required the most engineering manpower. "(Because of) the size and also, technically, this is where all of the issues are because of the geology, the concrete work and all the weight in the structure that we've got to handle."
He said the mechanical engineering requirements, including considering any potential interruptions to the operation of the turbine generators and heavy gates of the spillway, would come next.
Requirements vary for the different project components. For example, the converter stations require more electrical engineering work.
"There will be a big turnover next year. I'd say engineering is about 50, a little over 50 per cent (complete). By the end of next year, engineering will be around 80 to 85 per cent," Berchard said. "It means that all the engineering and technicians will go elsewhere, on other projects."
If the project moves ahead, the focus will shift to construction, he said, with more people on site in Labrador and less in the island office.