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PAM FRAMPTON: Why not just keep the public fully informed?

Muskrat Falls project director Paul Harrington at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John’s on Wednesday.
Muskrat Falls project director Paul Harrington at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry in St. John’s, June 5. — Telegram file photo

Some testimony at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry this week raised more questions than answers

I had a whopping 15 seconds of fame at the Muskrat Falls inquiry this week, when my name surfaced in an email written by project director Paul Harrington.

On March 18, 2018, Harrington wrote to deputy project director Ron Power, vice-president Gilbert Bennett and Nalcor communications manager Karen O’Neill about my column from the day before, “Muskrat Falls Inquiry to probe report that went mysteriously astray.”

The report in question was a risk assessment conducted by SNC-Lavalin in 2013. SNC had been handling engineering, procurement and construction management for Muskrat Falls, but in 2012, Nalcor — unhappy with the company’s performance — had scaled back its responsibilities.

The following year SNC took it upon itself to conduct a risk assessment of the project, and its report warned of the potential for grievous cost overruns and delays. The document didn’t surface publicly till 2017, when Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall gave a copy to Premier Dwight Ball.

I had a whopping 15 seconds of fame at the Muskrat Falls inquiry this week, when my name surfaced in an email written by project director Paul Harrington.

When pressed by the media in 2017, no one at Nalcor seemed to have any knowledge of it, even though SNC said it had attempted to deliver it.

I wrote more than a dozen columns on the report’s murky paper trail from 2017-18, but it was the March 17, 2018 one that was singled out by Harrington. That column pointed out that when the Muskrat Falls inquiry began hearing witness testimony that fall, the SNC report would be on the agenda and “merit particular attention,” according to the inquiry’s terms of reference.

We have since learned through the inquiry that key players with Muskrat Falls had been familiar with the SNC report, but some dismissed it as a piece of revisionist history by a Quebec company trying to recapture its share of former glory.

When SNC tried to deliver its report, Harrington hadn’t even wanted Nalcor to accept a copy for its files, warning that doing so would leave it vulnerable to access to information requests. He contended that the risks the report identified had already been addressed, and he had Westney Consulting conduct its own risk review (price tag not made public), comparing its assessment to the SNC report. Westney’s report supported Harrington’s view.

Members of SNC-Lavalin’s team have testified their risk report was done in good faith and they stand by it.

In his March 2018 email, Harrington urged O’Neill, Power and Bennett to release the Westney report publicly, to counteract reports about the SNC document.

“…This misrepresentation of the facts by the media needs to be addressed,” he wrote.

But the Westney report was not released then. It was tabled as evidence at the inquiry in February 2019.

In a June 2018 Nalcor report, public suggestions that the risks outlined by SNC had been ignored are described as “just one more example of the misinformation that is allowed to propagate by those who have an agenda and unfairly demonize the Project team.”

But consider this: the media had persistently asked questions about the SNC-Lavalin report, only to be met with a stone wall of silence, when they could have been handed the facts and the Westney analysis. If there was misinformation circulating, perhaps Nalcor should have been more forthcoming with the facts.

So, questions remain:

  1. Why didn’t Nalcor release the SNC report to the public and explain why there was no cause for concern? Why did some people deny ever having heard of it?
  2. Clearly Paul Harrington felt it worth the trouble and presumably public expense to commission a risk review from Westney Consulting in 2017, so why not make the Westney report public on the heels of all the fuss about the SNC-Lavalin report? Why not cut any “misrepresentation of the facts” off at the pass rather than let suspicion and mistrust fester?
  3. Why didn’t Nalcor release the Westney report when Harrington suggested it in his email in 2018? Again, questions were being asked and assumptions made based on the SNC-Lavalin report and the secrecy surrounding it. Why not clear the air?
  4. And, the biggest question of them all: why does Nalcor have this peculiar reflex that makes it react to every possible opportunity for transparency by yanking down the blinds?

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s managing editor. Email Twitter: pam_frampton

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