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SNC-Lavalin project manager describes ‘stressful’ environment to Muskrat Falls inquiry

Normand Béchard prepares to testify at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Tuesday in St. John’s. Béchard was the project manager for SNC-Lavalin.
Normand Béchard prepares to testify at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry on Tuesday in St. John’s. Béchard was the project manager for SNC-Lavalin. - Ashley Fitzpatrick

Normand Béchard tells Muskrat Falls Inquiry he felt underutilized, ‘useless’ before leaving the project

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Normand Béchard was working for Hydro-Québec in James Bay, looking for a new challenge, for maybe one last big project. He decided to make a change, ending up on Nalcor Energy’s Muskrat Falls project.

He was asked to take a month off before starting work with SNC-Lavalin in early 2011, to avoid conflicts. But by July, he was with SNC-Lavalin and had moved to Newfoundland and Labrador, starting work in St. John’s. He was the project manager for SNC.

SNC-Lavalin had been brought in as an engineering, procurement and construction management (EPCM) contractor by Nalcor Energy. As previously reported, that contractual relationship changed in 2012, after SNC had submitted an estimate for the bulk of the project and for its planned EPCM services, in December 2011.

Béchard said the professional relationship between owner and contractor never started as a positive one, and personal grievances stacked up at the Torbay Road office.

“They didn’t let me explain very much. They were just so frustrated,” he said of Nalcor’s project team.

He was specifically describing the period after the estimate numbers were submitted.

He said Nalcor Energy general project manager Ron Power told him an engineering student could have done a better job.

Béchard told Commissioner Richard LeBlanc he didn’t take any of it to heart, knowing Power was frustrated at the time.

“They didn’t let me explain very much. They were just so frustrated." — Normand Béchard

(Power is scheduled to be called to the stand May 13).

Béchard spent most of Tuesday morning describing clashes between Nalcor and SNC staff. He referred to shouting in conference rooms, micromanaging and a lack of respect for non-Nalcor personnel.

Like others, he said he had started with the expectation of a certain level of authority in his position, as conveyed by SNC-Lavalin, only to have that diminished as SNC-Lavalin’s role on the project was changed in 2012.

“I decided I would not fight. I would make myself available in a collaborative way,” he said of his response.

But he also said there was finger pointing at meetings after staff disputes or whenever things didn’t go as expected, with blame falling to SNC’s people.

“It was stressful,” he said.

He criticized a lack of hydroelectric project experience in Nalcor Energy’s management team.

Béchard left the project in 2014. He is now semi-retired, but undertakes some business coaching.

On the subject of early budgeting on a hydro megaproject, Béchard referred to past work with Hydro-Québec. He said a good rule of thumb is to develop a list and sum of all of the project’s direct costs (known costs, including materials and work hours). The total estimate for the project should be about double that amount, he said. That way you’re covering all “soft costs,” including contingencies.

In other words, a $5-billion base capital cost would be roughly a $10-billion project to complete.

“It was stressful." — Béchard

He said the Muskrat Falls project had “very low contingency.” He said it also opted for larger bid packages, something that will shift some additional management cost onto contractors, but also risks greater difficulty in replacing contractors if needed.

Asked about the 2013 SNC-Lavalin risk assessment report, where contract package size was a recorded risk, he said former Nalcor Energy president and CEO Ed Martin had an opportunity to see the report. At the same time, Béchard was not in the relevant meeting with former SNC-Lavalin CEO Robert Card where it would have happened.

Béchard said his impression, from meetings he was a party to, was Nalcor project manager Paul Harrington did not see the details. Béchard said he believes Nalcor’s former deputy project manager Jason Kean similarly did not read the report.

Béchard said it was an internal SNC-Lavalin document. He did not convey any of the detail himself, considering it the role of the executive.

He said his understanding was the report was kept within SNC-Lavalin and did not come to light after the few, original meetings with project team members until 2016, when it was requested from SNC-Lavalin by then-Nalcor Energy CEO Stan Marshall. Marshall passed the report to Premier Dwight Ball.

Béchard is set to continue on the stand on Wednesday.

Twitter: @TeleFitz


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