Pandemic blamed for delay in adopting Muskrat Falls inquiry recommendations
Critic says Waterford Hospital replacement, on a smaller scale, could repeat some missteps
The provincial government has barely made a dent in adopting a sweeping series of recommendations coming out of the Muskrat Falls inquiry, and one of the consequences could be another blunder with the new adult mental health and addictions facility in St. John's, says an outspoken critic.
Meanwhile, the minister leading the effort to implement the instructions of Justice Richard LeBlanc says his recommendations will be adopted "across the board."
But with the province still in the grips of a global pandemic, converting those recommendations into government policy will take longer than expected, said Andrew Parsons, minister of industry, energy and technology.
"I would be more worried about whether we do it, or not, rather than how fast we can do it, because the goal is to do these recommendations," Parsons said.
Of the 17 recommendations, only three have been implemented, though none of the seven key recommendations have been adopted.
Being built in a flood plain
A critic of the over-budget, long-delayed project, whose many warnings have become reality, is not happy about the progress or the government's use of the pandemic as an excuse.
"Not every public official or minister is engaged in the pandemic. It doesn't appear to have affected their announcement of all kinds of new programs spending money we don't have. Must be an election coming," said Ron Penney, one of the earliest and most outspoken opponents of the Nalcor-led Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project.
Penney, who chairs the Muskrat Falls Concerned Citizens Committee, said the province could be stumbling into another problem with the new mental health and addictions facility in St. John's, which will replace the Waterford Hospital.
The $330-million hospital is being constructed through a public-private partnership and will be located adjacent to the Health Sciences Centre, on a flood plain.
The No. 1 recommendation from LeBlanc was that the province hire an independent external expert to review any public project with a budget of $50 million or more.
If that were the case with the new mental health facility, it would never had been approved for the current location, said Penney, a former St. John's city manager.
"If anybody independent had looked at that decision, no doubt they would have changed because it's in a flood plain, and the province does that mapping for the flood plain, and it's just totally an unsuitable location for the Waterford Hospital," he said.
In the past, government officials have said two new berms will protect the site from flooding.
And in a statement, an official with the Department of Transportation and Works said, "Contracts were awarded to independent financial and procurement, fairness, and technical advisors prior to the start of the project."
The final report from the public inquiry investigating the Muskrat Falls project was released in early March, more than two years after the commission of inquiry was established by former premier Dwight Ball.
The report included some scorching criticism of former Nalcor leaders like Ed Martin, who LeBlanc said took "unprincipled steps" to get the project approved. LeBlanc also criticized senior politicians and bureaucrats for failing to keep a close watch on what one insider called a runaway train.
The report, entitled Muskrat Falls: A Misguided Project, also included 17 recommendations by LeBlanc to ensure the series of missteps that allowed what Ball once described as the "biggest economic mistake in Newfoundland and Labrador's history" would not be repeated.
LeBlanc's recommendations were aimed at, among other things, ensuring major public projects undergo unfettered scrutiny by independent external experts, that the Department of Finance oversee the financing negotiations and cost control of any large project, and that the Public Utilities Board carry out a review whenever there's a possibility electricity ratepayers may be affected.
LeBlanc also called for changes to ensure public servants can "speak truth to politicians" to provide "complete and objective advice," and advised that legislative changes be made to ensure public bodies like Nalcor cannot withhold information from senior politicians and bureaucrats on the grounds of legal privilege or commercial sensitivity.
LeBlanc advised that some of his recommendations should be adopted in as little as six months.
But just days after the report was released, it was overshadowed by the growing presence of a worldwide pandemic, and unprecedented societal upheaval in Newfoundland and Labrador as much of the province was shut down to fight the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
During a recent fall session, the legislature was consumed by the financial and public health crises griping the province, with the priority on adopting a budget. For months, a majority of public servants were working from home.
"I don't think we're as far ahead as we'd like to be. But at the same time it's not sitting on a shelf," said Parsons, adding that an implementation committee that he chairs has been meeting regularly.
Parsons expects many of the recommendations that involve legislative changes will be adopted during next spring's sitting of the House of Assembly.
He said some recommendations involving access-to-information laws will be examined by retired chief justice David Orsborn, who is leading a statutory review of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which is expected to be completed next year.
"There's urgency here, but at the same time, I'm a true believer in doing the proper analysis to make sure it's right, because sometimes these quick decisions are what got us into trouble in the first place."
The three recommendations that have been adopted include:
- A joint Nalcor-Newfoundland Power effort to review the reliability of the power grid in the Muskrat Falls era.
- A review of whether recommendations made by the Joint Review Panel were being followed. This relates largely to methylmercury concerns in Labrador.
- More detailed minutes of cabinet meetings.
Penney said that's not good enough.
"I'm disappointed, but I guess not surprised," said Penney.
LeBlanc isn't saying what he thinks about what's happened since the release of his report, and directed questions to lawyer Barry Learmonth, who served as commission co-counsel during the inquiry.
Learmonth said it was part of LeBlanc's mandate to deliver recommendations, and whether and when they are adopted is up to the government.
"They're not binding," said Learmonth.