Nfld. & Labrador

Don't turn Muskrat Falls report into a witch hunt, says N.L. consumer advocate

Dennis Browne is cautioning against a purge at Nalcor in the wake of the report from the inquiry into the over-budget and problem-plagued hydroelectric project.

Dennis Browne says there lessons in the report, but Nalcor housecleaning could cause harm

N.L. consumer advocate Dennis Browne praised Justice Richard LeBlanc on Friday for his work on the Muskrat Falls public inquiry but cautioned against focusing on retribution against those criticized in the report. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Newfoundland and Labrador's consumer advocate is cautioning that a purge at Nalcor Energy in the wake of the Muskrat Falls inquiry could do more harm than good at a critical phase in the project.

Dennis Browne said it's more important to learn from the investigation and to trust that the Crown corporation's CEO, Stan Marshall, is the best judge of whether to fire some key people who were singled out for criticism — including Nalcor vice-president Gilbert Bennett and former overall project director Paul Harrington — by inquiry commissioner Justice Richard LeBlanc.

'We defer to Mr. Marshall'

"If Mr. Marshall wants particular individuals to assist him on the project, I think it's probably in the public interest that at this juncture, we defer to Mr. Marshall on that subject, and I would," Browne told reporters Friday during a news conference at his St. John's law office.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall told reporters earlier this week that he'll continue to use whomever he feels will best see the project through to completion. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Browne said housecleaning at the Crown corporation might bring some satisfaction to those who are calling for terminations, but, he asked, "Where would it leave us? It would leave Mr. Marshall in a bind, put him under considerably more stress, and ultimately that is not in the public interest."

As the government-appointed consumer advocate, Browne's job is to protect the interest of electricity ratepayers in the province.

But more than that, he's a longtime critic of the Muskrat Falls project, and was presented during may of the 140 days of public hearings held by the inquiry.

After several days of wading through the long-awaited report's six volumes, and more than 1,000 pages, Browne offered unwavering praise for LeBlanc and his inquiry team for an investigation he described as reasonable, factual and sound," with "historical significance," with nothing lacking in the resulting document, entitled Muskrat Falls: A Misguided Project.

Justice Richard LeBlanc was commissioner of the Muskrat Falls public inquiry, which released a very critical report this week about the controversial project. LeBlanc and other members of the commission team have not agreed to media interviews. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Browne said the focus now should be on working together to deal with "the debacle of Muskrat Falls and the cost it has inflicted on our people and the destruction it has done to our economy."

Muskrat is billions over budget, soaring from $7.4 billion when it was sanctioned more than seven years ago to a final forecast cost of $12.7 billion.

It is also years behind schedule and is threatening to cripple the province's already fragile fiscal situation.

'No strong inclination' to monitor Nalcor

The inquiry looked into the process by which the project was approved, and its final report paints a disturbing portrait of Nalcor leaders who concealed information about cost and schedule risks from the provincial government, and political and bureaucratic leaders who either blindly trusted Nalcor or had "no strong inclination" to effectively oversee its activities.

In one of his strongest condemnations of the people at Nalcor, LeBlanc said former CEO Ed Martin and his top deputy, Gilbert Bennett, and members of the project management team "frequently took unprincipled steps to help secure project sanction."

Gilbert Bennett is the executive vice-president of power development at Nalcor Energy, and, along with former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin, was singled out by LeBlanc for taking 'unprincipled steps' to get the project approved. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

LeBlanc said efforts by Martin and his subordinates to prevent the project from being reviewed were "improper and indefensible," and that Harrington and his team demonstrated a "culture of superiority" and that project cost estimates were "biased on the low side."

LeBlanc also highlighted what he said was a lack of experience in members of the management team and determined the decision to reduce the role of engineering and construction company SNC-Lavalin "impacted the project in a negative way."

The report has ignited anger in the province as electricity users worry about paying significantly higher power rates when the project is complete.

The report has been referred to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Department of Justice for possible criminal and civil litigation, and there have also been calls for Bennett, Harrington and others to be fired.

Martin's replacement at Nalcor, Stan Marshall, has refused.

"My duty is to get this thing finished in the best way possible for the people of this province. And that's exactly what I'm going to do. If I have to defend some of these people to do that, that's what I'm going to do," he told reporters this week.

Browne agrees with Marshall.

"I have confidence in Stan Marshall. Stan Marshall is solid," said Browne.

Meanwhile, Browne chose his words carefully when asked about the criticism levelled at LeBlanc and his report by Martin and former premier Danny Williams, key players in the project.

"Anyone who doubts what transpired: read the report," said Browne.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Terry Roberts is a reporter with CBC Newfoundland and Labrador, and is based in St. John’s. He previously worked for The Telegram, The Compass and The Northern Pen newspapers during a career that began in 1991. He can be reached by email at: Terry.Roberts@cbc.ca.

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