2 more companies leave 'unprofessional' Mackenzie Valley fibre optic line project

The latest companies to exit the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Valley fibre line project — which was supposed to be completed in September — say parts of the line remain improperly installed and exposed to the elements.

'I've been involved with big projects in my life, and this one was a cluster-f from the get go'

Workers install a portion of the Mackenzie Valley fibre optic line during the 2015 construction season.

The latest companies to exit the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Valley fibre line project — which was supposed to be completed in September — say parts of the line remain improperly installed and exposed to the elements.

"We won't accept it in such a current state," says Sean Craig, a P3 analyst overseeing the project for the N.W.T.'s Department of Finance.

The latest setbacks for the $82-million project raise further questions about organizational disarray within Ledcor Technical Services, the Vancouver-based company awarded the contract to install the 1,154-kilometre line.

They also raise doubts about when the line will be ready to do what it's supposed to do: offer a high-speed internet link for schools, health centres and other government facilities down the valley, from Fort Simpson to Inuvik.

"It's not secure," says Ken Goldade, the owner of Candrill Enterprises Ltd.

"Anybody could come along and cut the line. Animals could run into it and rip it and break it."

Candrill, an Alberta company that conducts horizontal directional drilling, was hired late in 2015 by Ledcor.

Candrill's entry came after Ledcor fired Rohl Enterprises, the subcontractor that installed the first two thirds of the line. Rohl and Ledcor are suing each other over the project.

Now Candrill has also left under acrimonious circumstances and, like Rohl, is alleging that Vancouver-based Ledcor was unprepared for the job. 

"I've been involved with big projects in my life, and this one was a cluster-f from the get go," said Goldade.

Camp not ready

The trouble began when Candrill mobilized its drills and employees to the North, says Goldade.

He says Ledcor promised a central camp would be in place for workers but wasn't, forcing them to sleep in their trucks in -30 C to -40 C weather. Other accommodations lacked bathrooms.

"It was hard to get people to get out and go to work," said Goldade.

Ground conditions also made drilling difficult, he adds.

2015 government inspection reports found numerous areas where the fibre optic cable was exposed or poking above ground. (Department of Lands Inspection Report)

And though Goldade says Candrill was not blameless — the company took the job reluctantly, as it does not normally operate much during the winter, and some of its equipment took a while to set up in the N.W.T., causing delays — he's calling Ledcor's  behaviour "unprofessional" on the ground it made a bad situation worse.

"I would not go back on the way they treated us on a personal level, on a company level," said Goldade.

He added that Ledcor is holding back some of its payments to Candrill and is his refusing to take his calls.

Goldade's comments were echoed by Russell Taekema, the owner of Klondike Directional Drilling, which partnered with Candrill on the fibre line project.

Taekema says drilling was hampered by rock-strewn soil, "wearing out tooling like nobody's business," and that Ledcor won't pay him, either. 

He's considering legal action, citing unpaid bills totalling up to $1.5 million.

"I'm going to be forced to close my company up here right away because I've got guys calling me for money and threatening to sue me."

Ledcor declined to address Goldade and Taekema's allegations.

Parts of line exposed above ground

The horizontal drilling was ultimately never completed, says Goldade, meaning some parts of the fibre line remain exposed above ground, and in less than ideal conditions that could threaten the line's life expectancy.

"Even after the ice roads were shut down, our guys stayed there and worked by hand to help run the fibre line through the trees," said Goldade.

The Mackenzie Valley fibre optic line is supposed to be buried in trenches like this one. Subcontractors say parts of line are still exposed above ground.

"They have to get that buried this winter."

The territorial government agrees.

"It's not acceptable," said Craig with the Department of Finance.

"We have had many conversations with respect to the installation, or I would say with the temporary installation, at those areas.

"Certainly commissioning would not be signed off on until the line is completed as per the project agreement and the agreed-to installation practices."

Ledcor won't be paid until the government verifies the line is working properly, said Craig. 

The 1,154-kilometre Mackenzie Valley fibre optic line is to run from Fort Simpson to Inuvik, N.W.T. (GNWT)

Completion now estimated in June 2017

Ledcor won the fibre line contract through a joint venture with Northwestel called Northern Lights Fibre Consortium, which will operate the line.

The consortium will eventually be paid through a series of annual payments totaling $234 million over 20 years once construction concludes, provided the line is working to the satisfaction of the government.

Early testing of the line has been a mixed bag, however, says Craig.

"Certainly there's areas that we're happy with and there's other areas we're not," said Craig.

Ledcor and Craig say they're now hoping to cut the ribbon on the fully functioning line by June 2017, nearly a year behind schedule.

Ledcor offered little comment beyond that.

"At completion, all of the cable will be buried except where it is attached to poles and bridges," said David Hoff, a spokesperson for Ledcor, via email.

"Remediation work and testing are going well."