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EDITORIAL: Don’t skimp on questions

Paul Harrington awaits the start of his testimony the Muskrat Falls inquiry. —
Paul Harrington awaits the start of his testimony the Muskrat Falls inquiry. — Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

More than a few frustrations happen when you listen to the Muskrat Falls inquiry webcast for any period of time.

There’s the frustration of listening to lawyers for those involved in project decisions doing their level best to deflect any possible blame from their clients.

There’s the frustration of hearing about the mega-salaries of project staff.

And there’s the fact that sometimes, the inquiry’s own lawyers, moving quickly through rafts of information and millions of pages of documentation, skip quickly through something that makes you want to say, “Wait a minute — ask another question about that. Can that really be true?”

Here’s one of the things the inquiry lawyers moved through with Muskrat Falls project director Paul Harrington.

One of the inquiry’s co-counsel, Kate O’Brien, was asking about how potential risks to the project were accounted for in the project’s budget, and whether the project’s senior staff properly included those risks in the overall numbers that were released publicly.

One of the topics that came up? Engineering. Throughout the project government officials and politicians have boasted regularly about that work being done here. Keep in mind, SNC-Lavalin, the main engineering contractor, was located in Montreal.

More than a few frustrations happen when you listen to the Muskrat Falls inquiry webcast for any period of time.

Well, during the discussion of risks, Harrington talked about the fact that SNC, experienced in doing engineering work for hydroelectric projects, had a specialized team in Montreal.

SNC apparently expected that work to be done in the team’s home location.

But no.

One of the unexpected costs? Moving that team to Newfoundland and Labrador, and apparently covering those team members’ accommodation and travel costs throughout, to create the optics of having a “N.L. team.”

As one of the documents filed with Harrington’s testimony points out, “95 per cent of engineering completed in N.L. Significant premium to attract and retain workforce in St. John’s.”

Wait: what? Did we really?

It was only a passing reference that the inquiry may — or may not — come back to later.

So, a significant chunk of that of that “95 per cent of engineering completed in N.L.” was actually done by a temporary team that we were paying a significant premium to have located here? Sounds like an unusual expense for what sounds like optics.

Keep in mind, the project had specific local benefits requirements. Did having SNC’s team here make it “local” work?

Inquiry lawyer O’Brien didn’t ask questions about how much extra it cost to move the team here, or ask Harrington to expand on the difficulties in team member turnover that resulted.

All in all, it was a tantalizingly brief hint of yet another way the “our mighty project, our world-class experts” attitude might well have helped to build the cost overruns we’re now going to have to pay for. For decades.

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