Bennett was everywhere — TV, radio and print interviews, editorial board appearances, writing letters to the editor in The Telegram — assuring the people of the province that the gargantuan hydroelectric project was the least-cost, best and most viable solution to meet the province’s pressing energy needs.
He addressed issues about environmental and health concerns, financial risks, power demands and more.
There was no question about Muskrat Falls that you could throw at Nalcor’s VP for the Lower Churchill that he didn’t have a quick and ready answer for.
But where is he now?
Late last month, when it came to light that a damning risk assessment report on Muskrat Falls had been written in 2013 by SNC-Lavalin — the project’s lead engineering, procurement and construction management firm — Bennett was not available to answer questions about the report, which Nalcor’s executive denies ever having received. And that’s despite the fact the SNC-Lavalin has said it at least attempted to present the report to Nalcor.
If the company is correct in that, you would have expected Bennett to be at that meeting.
Yet he did not respond to The Telegram’s request for an interview about the report, nor did he acknowledge receiving the questions I emailed to him on the matter last week — though he did make sure they got to Nalcor’s communications director.
It’s passing strange that Nalcor would profess to have no knowledge of a report containing serious warnings about the high-risk nature of Muskrat Falls from a company it touted as its close working partner from the early days of the project’s inception.
“SNC-Lavalin offers the world-class engineering, procurement and construction management experience required for a project of this magnitude," Gilbert Bennett said in a news release in December 2010. “Their specialization in hydroelectric developments, transmission, HVdc and civil works will be critical to the successful construction of the Lower Churchill project.”
At the time, Muskrat Falls was expected to cost $6.2 billion and be pumping out power by 2016.
(Excuse me, while I pause here to shake my head for a moment.)
In 2012, Bennett was still singing SNC-Lavalin’s praises, telling The Telegram, “We have a high degree of respect for SNC-Lavalin’s engineering capability, project management capability. 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.”
So, a year later, Nalcor’s respected professional partner delivers a risk assessment report on Muskrat Falls, and none of the higher-ups at Nalcor read it? That strains credulity.
Two months after the report was delivered, Bennett was still stressing the close relationship between Nalcor and SNC-Lavalin in the media.
But Bennett is not talking near as much now. As best as I can tell from a news search, the last media interview he gave locally was to CBC’s “Labrador Morning,” on Jan. 13, 2017, during which he suggested there was no risk of changing water levels in areas like Mud Lake.
Massive flooding occurred there in May, although there is no proof to date that Nalcor’s activities at Muskrat Falls had anything to do with that.
So why has Bennett gone silent?
Muskrat Falls is now 70 per cent over-budget, two years behind, has been plagued by incidents and accidents, and threatens to burden the people of this province with electricity at rates that will be double and triple what they are now.
I don’t want to be unfair to Bennett, and he’s not an elected official. But it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect that the person who was always front-and-centre on Muskrat Falls would be willing to talk to the media now.
Last year, as executive vice-president in charge of the project, Bennett was paid an annual salary of $279,200, plus a $35,700 bonus.
Surely to God a salary that size comes with a responsibility to answer questions and address public concerns.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s associate managing editor. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: pam_frampton