Nfld. & Labrador

Bullied and 'treated like slaves': Witness defends SNC-Lavalin's role in Muskrat Falls

A witness at the Muskrat Falls inquiry Tuesday defended the role of SNC-Lavalin in the controversial project, and at the same time blasted the performance of Nalcor's project team.

Normand Bechard says he 'felt useless' and was paid too much for his limited role on the project

Normand Bechard came to St. John's in the summer of 2011, believing he would be the overall project director on the Muskrat Falls project for SNC-Lavalin. But Bechard testified Tuesday that Nalcor soon pushed him and SNC-Lavalin aside. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A veteran manager of major project construction who said he "felt useless" working on Muskrat Falls gave a strong defence Tuesday of SNC-Lavalin's role in the controversial project.

And Norman Bechard didn't stop there.

He said he was bullied by Nalcor's project director, once wrote a letter to a superior saying SNC-Lavalin employees were being "treated like slaves," and suggested seasoned, world-class experts with the Quebec firm were replaced with personnel who lacked the proper experience for such a massive and complex project.

SNC-Lavalin stripped of its leadership role

And in almost the same breath, Bechard questioned some of the decisions made by the Nalcor team that was overseeing Muskrat as the project struggled to get going in the early part of this decade, including a controversial decision to strip SNC-Lavalin of its leadership role on the project.

It was tough in St. John's. Every day it was fight. Every meeting we were having we were blamed.- Normand Bechard

"It was tough in St. John's. Every day it was fight. Every meeting we were having we were blamed," Bechard said of the strained relationship between Nalcor and SNC personnel in 2011 and 2012, in the lead-up to official sanctioning of what was advertised by Nalcor as a $6.2-billion project.

Bechard gave hours of sometimes jaw-dropping testimony at an inquiry that is investigating why the hydro project is billions over budget and years behind schedule, including this description of a meeting with Paul Harrington, leader of Nalcor's project management team, in the spring of 2012.

"Paul stood up and started bullying us, (saying) 'You're incompetent.… You will not be able to get the job done.' And he was yelling. Yelling. Disrespect. Full disrespect," said Bechard, adding it was common for SNC employees to be "abused and disrespected" by their Nalcor counterparts.

Questioning Nalcor's commitment to risk management

Under questioning from inquiry co-counsel Barry Learmonth, Bechard raised concerns about Nalcor's approach to setting cost estimates, its decision to award a billion-dollar-plus contract to Astaldi instead of dividing the work into smaller contracts with multiple companies, and the Crown corporation's ill-fated decision to not carry out any geotechnical work on the 1,100-kilometre Labrador-island link from Muskrat Falls to the Avalon Peninsula.

Bechard also questioned Nalcor's commitment to risk management, and what he described as a "low" contingency allowance of $368 million on a project with so many identified tactical and strategic risks.

Bechard is one of four current or former SNC-Lavalin employees who will testify this week at the public inquiry, answering to what has been some blistering criticism of the company's performance by Nalcor managers during earlier testimony.

SNC specializes in project engineering and construction management, and has a long background in hydroelectric projects. It was awarded the critical EPCM — engineering, procurement and construction management — contract in February 2011.

Bechard, a civil engineer with four decades of experience in construction management — most of it in the hydro field — was hired by SNC as its project director, and said he came to Muskrat after overseeing several Hydro-Québec projects that came in under budget and ahead of schedule.

But Bechard said he learned very quickly this would be a project unlike any he'd been involved with before, and instead of leading the project, Bechard said, he was reduced to the role of advisor, without the authority even to hire people for his team.

"More than useless. They were paying me too much money for what I was bringing," Bechard stated matter-of-factly during a long day of testimony in St. John's.

This is a recent aerial view of the Muskrat Falls project in central Labrador. (Nalcor)

Bechard said Ron Power, his counterpart at Nalcor, had to sign off on every candidate, and this caused delays.

"They were using the (hiring) process to micromanage the way SNC was performing on the EPCM," said Bechard, explaining that on other projects, he would have had the full authority to hire people.

They even told me in a meeting if this exercise had been done by a student they would probably have a better result than the one I (gave) to them.- Normand Bechard

Bechard said Nalcor project leaders were furious when SNC delivered its final project cost estimate in late 2011.

"They were so frustrated; they were just blaming me. They even told me in a meeting if this exercise had been done by a student they would probably have a better result than the one I (gave) to them," Bechard testified, adding he believed the cost estimate was fair, and that it was praised by an expert consultant who reviewed it.

Nalcor eventually shunted Bechard, and the entire SNC-Lavalin team, out of the procurement and management role, and established what are known as integrated management teams.

Bechard left the project in March 2014.

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