Nfld. & Labrador

Lifting the veil: Government to remove secrecy over contractor pay at Muskrat Falls

A proposed change to the Energy Corporation Act means the identities and amount of money paid to contractors working on the Muskrat Falls project will soon be available for public disclosure under Newfoundland and Labrador's access to information laws.

Withholding of contractors' names and payments 'not reasonable or necessary,' says Siobhan Coady

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady announced Thursday that changes are coming to the Energy Corporation Act. She is shown here with assistant deputy minister John Cowan. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

A proposed change to the Energy Corporation Act means the identities and amount of money paid to contractors hired directly by Nalcor for work on the Muskrat Falls project will soon be available for public disclosure under Newfoundland and Labrador's access to information laws.

Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady announced Thursday that an amendment to the Act will modify the definition of "commercially sensitive information" as it relates to temporary workers hired for the project.

Once passed by the legislature, the names of so-called embedded contractors and payments received from Nalcor Energy will no longer be protected, and that disclosure will be retroactive to past contracts.

The change will bring Nalcor in line with other Crown corporations and agencies with respect to information disclosure and accountability, said Coady, and said such secrecy was "not reasonable or necessary."

She said the change is part of the Liberal government's commitment to openness and transparency.

Media scrutiny drove the the change

The amendment follows intense media scrutiny of the issue in 2017, with Nalcor saying it was unable to release billing rates and the names of hundreds of contractors working on the massive project, which is billions over budget and years behind schedule, because of limitations in the Energy Corporation Act.

"If it was up to me, I'd release it. But I'm bound by the legislation," Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall told CBC News in October 2017.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall (right) and chair Brendan Paddick are pictured at the corporation's AGM in April. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Marshall said at the time such contract arrangements are common for major projects, and secrecy is preferred by contractors who provide specialized services like engineering or construction and project management because they compete with each other for work.

But Premier Ball stated at the time the lack of disclosure was not acceptable, and hinted at legislative changes.

No evidence of harm, says privacy commissioner

The media, including CBC News, challenged the lack of disclosure, with the information and privacy commissioner ruling in late 2017 there was "no evidence" that releasing the information would unfairly expose contractors to "risk of financial or other harm."

As of May, there were roughly 330 "embedded" contractors hired directly by Nalcor Energy to work on the Muskrat Falls hydroelctric project. (Nalcor Energy)

The commissioner added that disclosure "does not constitute an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy."

Nalcor would not comment Thursday, but released a statement saying it will fully comply with the amendment.

The department advised Nalcor of the overall policy intent, but no input was requested or provided.- Nalcor Energy statement

"The department advised Nalcor of the overall policy intent, but no input was requested or provided," the statement read.

As of May, there are roughly 330 embedded contractors working for Nalcor, bringing various expertise to the project. That's down from a high of roughly 500, according to a Nalcor official.

The current Act under which Nalcor operates deems this type of compensation commercially sensitive, and off limits under to access to information and privacy laws.

The information would be public if they were hired as employees of the Crown corporation.

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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