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Muskrat inquiry, now!

By: | June 27, 2017

The people of Newfoundland and Labrador deserve immediate transparency, accountability, and evidence supporting the claim Muskrat Falls should not and cannot be stopped.

Hans Rollmann
To Each Their Own examines political issues impacting Newfoundland and Labrador.

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File photo by Justin Brake.

We knew it was coming. Another press conference, another billion-dollar cost overrun.

The price of Muskrat Falls is now $12.7 billion and rising. The public will soon see this reflected on their rising energy bills. This doesn’t include the incalculable costs to health and safety being experienced by people in Labrador, nor the systemic violence and colonialism Indigenous communities are facing as they struggle to protect their lands, lives, and ways of life against a project which is now overwhelmingly recognized as a disaster.

Even the Liberal government seems to have accepted that an independent audit of Muskrat Falls is inevitable. Instead of denying it, they’re now desperately trying to delay it.

There is no longer any serious debate about whether Muskrat Falls was a good idea. Even the person running it admits it’s a disaster that should never have happened. This means that the question for us now is: What do we do about it?

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall and Premier Dwight Ball brush off the question. There’s nothing we can do but plow on and deal with the consequences, they say.

Yet neither have provided compelling evidence to back up their position.

In an effort to divert blame away from himself and onto former Nalcor CEO Ed Martin, on Friday Ball produced a 2013 SNC-Lavalin report which he says arrived in his hands only the day before, and which predicted many of the present problems, namely enormous cost overruns. Martin responded by saying he’d never seen the report. Then, earlier today, Ball announced he learned from SNC that its representatives met with Nalcor in 2013 and briefed the crown corporation on the report, allegedly including Martin.

The disorganized incompetence represented by the surfacing of this four-year-old report, and the he-said-she-said soap opera drama being perfectly executed by political and corporate leaders underscore why an independent inquiry is so vital.

On Tuesday Ball and Natural Resources Minister Siobhan Coady said they are working to gather all relevant documentation to launch an eventual audit or inquiry, though they reportedly maintain such a pursuit cannot happen until the project is complete, since it would “take away from finishing Muskrat Falls.”

If the people in charge don’t even have all the facts in front of them as they’re making decisions, or if they’re not being forthright with the information they have, how can we trust any of the decisions they make?

We need an independent inquiry into Muskrat Falls right now, for three reasons.

First, there are still unresolved questions about the health and safety implications of the project, from methylmercury poisoning, to how the dam will change the behaviour of the river downstream and impact travel on the water and ice, to the belief among many locals that the North Spur will not support the dam. Piecemeal efforts have been made to address some of these issues, but there needs to be a thorough, independent effort by a credible independent inquiry empowered to access all the data and records it needs from Nalcor and its subcontractors and partners.

Second, we need accountability. Some have argued there’s no point, the damage is done, let’s move on.

This is the wrong attitude.

We need to correct and repair the problems in our political decision-making processes that led to this disaster. We need justice and accountability from individuals who are guilty, indeed. But if the flawed decision-making that led to Muskrat Falls is not understood and corrected, then we risk it infecting all other decision-making in this province. We need to know what went wrong. Because whatever it was, until we figure it out, it’s still happening.

Pull Quote Hans Rollmann Muskrat Inquiry IThird, we need to know whether continuing is the best course of action. Marshall and Ball claim it is, but they have provided no compelling evidence to the public to back up their claims, nor can they themselves. The only compelling evidence is that which an independent inquiry with full access to all of Nalcor and the government’s data and documents could produce.

The premier has said that an audit should happen, but that it could slow things down or increase the costs of the project, and that it should wait until the project is completed. That’s nonsense. We are still plowing into multi-billion-dollar debt. Time is of the essence. We need an independent inquiry now.

We should also be clear on what the inquiry would involve.

Some people are talking about a forensic audit and investigation of cost estimates; others are talking about an inquiry into the North Spur. What we need is an independent inquiry with a broad, yet clearly defined, mandate that includes a forensic audit, and that investigates the poor cost estimates and financial planning, the health and safety implications of the project, the scale and integrity of engagement with local and Indigenous communities, how and why social sanction was pursued by the provincial government and its corporate partners, the response to protests and respect for Labradorians’ civil rights and Indigenous peoples’ constitutional rights, and the chain of command and political and corporate involvement at all levels of the project.

The inquiry must be able to ascertain clearly who was responsible for what, and excavate the integrity and robustness of decision-making processes which took place. It must have full, unimpeded access to documents, records and data.

Boondogglers in charge

We should remember that the people responsible for this disaster are still running public affairs.

Dozens of politicians who blindly supported the initiative are still sitting in office. Numbers of senior bureaucrats who participated in the decision-making are likely still making decisions. Senior managers and economists from Nalcor to the various financial institutions that helped finance the project are also likely still making decisions, entrusted with millions of dollars of public funds. If their crime is one of omission—failing to do their due diligence, to question presented truths, to ascertain facts, to weigh the plausibility of data presented to them—or one of wilful ignorance or manipulation of the facts, they must be held to account.

We need to know which it was: willful manipulation, or colossal stupidity? And we need accountability either way. A colossal disaster of this scale that risks bankrupting future generations of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians cannot be allowed to proceed without those responsible being held to account.

Danny Williams, who sold the project to the people of the province on a promise of “clean and green” renewable energy despite the history of large hydro dams in northern Canada causing the same problems for Indigenous communities we’re now seeing in Labrador, and despite the fact so many of them have gone way over cost, is now engineering an entire community on the Northeast Avalon.

If Williams is responsible for the poor decision, and for acquiring a social license without providing information that was readily available about the product in question, is it fair that he doesn’t have to pay a fair share of his wealth as partial compensation? The former PC premier will forever be associated with the scandalous disaster he’s unleashed on the province, and that legacy is one that will haunt his name forever. But is it fair that Williams enjoy his remaining days in freedom, wealth and luxury while the people of the province he’s set on a collision course with penury pay the price in suffering and hardship?

We will never ensure our politicians take their roles seriously if we do not ensure they face serious consequences for their poor decisions.

How many have apologized and admitted their guilt or error? An independent inquiry is needed to achieve the accountability that our politicians, decision-makers and senior bureaucrats are currently dodging.

If not now, when?

There is no better time to launch an independent inquiry into Muskrat Falls than now.

When else would we do it? When the cost has risen another billion or two? When the projected cost of energy on future residents of the province has risen yet further? When more documents magically come to light just in time for a convenient press conference? When another town has been washed away, its residents rendered homeless?

Photos: Nalcor & N.L. House of Assembly.

Nalcor CEO Stan Marshall and Premier Dwight Ball have “built a pattern of blaming other people for the problems they face,” writes Hans Rollmann. Photos: Nalcor & N.L. House of Assembly.

Or perhaps after another election, when our familiar gang of MHAs are once again safely installed for another four years? After the leadership mantle has been safely passed on to another premier—an Andrew Parsons or a Gerry Byrne or a Steve Kent—who can then simply blame the previous one? Or perhaps even Paul Davis again, who could then blame Ball for not doing anything during his time as premier to correct the mistakes of Davis’ previous tenure as premier. The cycle could continue endlessly.

If Premier Ball, with the bureaucracy of an entire government at his disposal for the past two years, with Muskrat Falls as the key issue facing his government, with the province sliding billions of dollars into debt, is incapable of unearthing a key four-year-old report, then it is time for someone else to do the job.

When it comes to their roles with Muskrat Falls, Marshall and Ball have built a pattern of blaming other people for the problems they face. But Marshall has been on the job now for a little over a year; Ball for a year and a half. The problems we now face are of their doing.

Both could have stopped the project. Both insisted stopping it would be worse than continuing—on the basis of what evidence, we do not know. They have not provided us any compelling evidence, nor have they opened the project’s books and records to persuade us. They have not allowed an independent inquiry to verify their sweeping claims. And as they continue to refuse an inquiry, the costs keep rising and mysterious information keeps appearing.

If they had stopped the project, they would not now be announcing further overruns. They would instead be negotiating a finite sum to get us out of this mess — an exit fee that would be set in stone and not keep rising for the next decade.

If they had stopped the project, the people of Mud Lake might still have homes.

If it emerges that the flooding of Mud Lake was in any way related to Muskrat Falls, then the fault of wiping out a community and rendering much of its population homeless will rest squarely on the shoulders of Ball and Marshall, the people who decided to proceed with the project with no independent review.

It’s not too late

Support for Muskrat Falls is at its lowest point ever. The majority of people in the province are opposed to it. It’s cost the province billions and may yet cost us billions more. It will inflate our energy bills for years to come. It has turned Labrador against the Island, divided Indigenous communities, sparked mass protests, jailed grandmothers and led to police violence against youth. It’s devastating the province’s most magnificent river—one sacred to the Innu and Inuit for thousands of years—and is poisoning the land and disrupting traditional ways of life. It’s endangering the lives and safety of downstream communities, and the health of an even larger swath of communities.

Stopping Muskrat Falls may yet be the most sensible, humane, and cost-effective thing to do. Billions have been committed. But how many more billions will we find ourselves paying if the project continues? How many billions from taxpayers’ pockets in the form of inflated energy bills? How many billions from class-action lawsuits over the environmental and health impacts down the road (which will also, inevitably, trickle down to taxpayers’ wallets).

Pull Quote Hans Rollmann Muskrat Inquiry IStopping the project may yet be the most effective thing to do. But we don’t know, because we haven’t had a trustworthy, independent study look at it, with full access to Nalcor and the government’s data and records.

It’s not as though stopping the project would mean simply walking away. Rehabilitating the project site could generate millions—perhaps billions—in federal environmental funding, and hundreds of new jobs. It could be converted into a monument and ceremonial centre honouring the Indigenous communities for whom the river is sacred, and who are fighting for its (and their) survival. It could become the province’s first and greatest monument to reconciliation. The tourism potential of such a site would generate immense revenue and jobs, not to mention the respect of the world.

At present, Muskrat Falls is a glaring symbol of the stupidity, greed and colonial attitudes of our province’s political leaders and corporate partners. By ending this disastrous, failed hydro project and reconceptualizing it as a proud, rehabilitated Reconciliation Site, we would also be marking, for the world to see, the moment we turned things around for ourselves.

It would be a living, flowing symbol of our collective decision to bring an end to the short-sighted foolishness that’s characterized our political leadership, and a sign of our determination to start doing things right. We would stop being the laughing-stock of the developed world, and instead garner the pride and admiration that we deserve as a kind, caring province.

But this requires owning our mistake, not blaming it on others. And the first step is an independent inquiry, to learn the truth about this project and all the mistakes that defined it, and to form an objective, independent assessment of the best way to move forward, which might mean not moving forward with Muskrat Falls as an energy project.

Hans Rollmann is an editor, writer, researcher and organizer with a penchant for chocolate and a knack for limericks.

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