The single contract for the intake, powerhouse, spillway and transition dams at Muskrat Falls has not yet been awarded, but when Shawn Skinner heard it might go to an Italian company, he decided it was time to raise questions about international contractors.
On Tuesday morning, the former provincial minister of natural resources and longtime supporter of the multibillion-dollar hydroelectric project took to the airwaves on VOCM.
“For me it’s about the level of risk that Nalcor, in this case, would be assuming,” he said, in a clip later posted online.
“The level of risk with a Canadian company that is familiar with the climate in Labrador, familiar with supply chain … they have offices across the country. They have offices in Newfoundland and Labrador. They have people working in Newfoundland and Labrador. ... Your level of risk with something going wrong there, I would argue, is much less than when you bring in a company from Europe.”
From expressions of interest to requests for proposals, to shortlist and then evaluations for final award, Nalcor Energy vice-president and Lower Churchill project lead Gilbert Bennett said contracts for Muskrat Falls run through several stages and detailed investigation of contractors.
“Ultimately for us, at this point, we’re interested in best value for the people of the province. So we need a contractor who can do the work safely, can meet our specifications and the other Canadian specifications that are associated with the work and, of course, one that gives us best commercial value,” he said.
He noted any company awarded a contract will have to operate within established benefits agreements and prioritize local hires.
He also said Skinner’s statements are biased commentary.
A dog in the fight
Nalcor Energy lists bidders for Muskrat Falls contracts online. The shortlist for the intake, powerhouse, spillway and transition dams contract includes four bidders. Two of those are Italian-based, one is a St. John’s-based partnership known as IKC-ONE Civil Constructors and the last is a partnership that includes Skinner’s current employer, Aecon Construction Group. Flatiron Construction and Barnard Consruction complete the three-way joint venture.
Despite his comments on radio, the former politician told The Telegram he has no specific complaints in relation to Astaldi S.p.A. out of Italy, or the other Italian bidder on the Muskrat Falls contract, a three-way joint venture of Salini S.p.A., FCC Construction S.A. and Impregilo S.p.A.
He said his comments on air were the product of research and discussions with engineers, tradespeople, architects, project managers and “people in the union movement,” who have raised concerns to him about companies hired on large construction projects elsewhere in Canada running into trouble — because of a lack of understanding of the area, misunderstandings with aboriginal groups, a lack of acknowledgement of local regulation and/or an unwillingness to use local workers.
As for the fact his own company stands to benefit from his comments?
“So all I can say to that is, yes, they are correct, I have a stake in the game, so to speak, but more importantly, what about the comments I’m raising?”
Skinner said Canadian-based contractors could hit trouble.
“But with a Canadian company, I would suggest, the element of risk is less. That’s my point,” he said.
“These are legitimate concerns that have happened in other parts of the country and I’m saying because this is a major project for this province — probably the biggest one we’ll do for the next however many years — and the warts and all that have come with Muskrat Falls, let’s make sure we give it every possible chance to succeed.”
Skinner said he has raised the issue about proper activity by Muskrat Falls contractors with provincial government staff. As for why none of his former colleagues have expressed his concerns?
“Maybe they’ve done it internally and they have a level of comfort with it. I don’t know,” he said.