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Muskrat Falls and the Tip of the Iceberg

in Featured/Opinion by

Last Thursday night, instead of attending a letter writing campaign at the LSPU Hall where dozens of local artists had assembled to write to government policy makers, begging for an increase in funding for our provincial arts council, I was on Springdale Street replacing a set of leaky kitchen taps in a rental property. The owner was a nice Scottish man who works in the oil industry. He complained about the lost equity in the house. He’s working in Azerbaijan now, but has fallen in love with a Newfoundland woman. He bemoaned the lack of work here, while I was under his sink. He said most oil companies would never build another major project in Newfoundland, after what went on with Hebron. He said the Koreans were much cheaper and better organized.

“I worked on that project,” I said. “What a shit show.”

We went on to discuss the rampant nepotism and the poor practices that made the job go so far over budget. The very same issues that came up on Friday at the Muskrat Falls Inquiry: toilet brushes in place of real tools, decisions and productivity delayed by off-site muckety-mucks. It was all very familiar, and maddening.

Scottish Oil Guy asked if I worked with the Norwegian piping system in Bull Arm. And yes, I said, I had. He told me that out on the Grand Banks right now the whole system is leaking as if it were made from weeping tile; people are scrambling for a way to replace it all with PVC. I told him it was no wonder. At Bull Arm we were always in a rush to install the pipe, so supervisors could take photos to send to St. John’s. But we had a laughable lack of tools and materials. The piping system, called Blucher, was put together with crimps, not unlike modern Pex waterlines we have in our homes. The problem? On that entire job site, where we were essentially building a floating seven-story hotel, we had one set of crimpers. ONE. Every morning after our lip-service safety meeting it was a mad dash to try and get the crimpers before another crew did. If you weren’t fast enough you’d spend most of the day standing around, doing nothing. Pleas and complaints were met with a shrug and the attitude of, “The longer this job lasts, the longer we’re all making the best kind of money. So stop complaining.”

Just get the pipe up in the air,” we were told, “crimped or not. Cut it, hang it, get it up in the ceiling. Don’t worry about crimping it.” So of course it’s leaking now. You can’t take accurate measurements when the whole system moves because nothing’s been crimped.

Didn’t matter. What mattered was showing someone in St. John’s the “progress” we were making. The same stuff happened at every major work site I’d been on: lack of tools, wasted material, and redundant efforts.

My Scottish friend said when he bought the house on Springdale Street the whole province was “full of optimism.” I literally LOL’d.

At the inquiry they talked about nepotism and the advancement of under-qualified workers being a source of budget overruns. It’s pervasive. We see it in government all the time—hello, Carla Foote! Out at Bull Arm, the General Foreman for all the piping trades was a welder. A welder running a job installing piping systems. Under him, as foremen? His brother (also a welder), and two more fellas from his small hometown.

I worked with people who would bounce around between Long Harbour, Bull Arm, and Muskrat Falls, as it suited them. Getting name hired by their relatives or friends, quitting one job on Wednesday, starting the next one on Thursday.

At Long Harbour they referred to the job as “Hide and Seek for Two Thousand a Week.” Because that was what they did. It’s what they were instructed to do: show up, disappear, and hide from the higher-ups until it was time to go home.

It’s no surprise Danny’s egotistical legacy project has crippled us financially. Not if you’ve ever been on one of those job sites. And based on how Hebron has worked out, don’t be surprised either when Muskrat Falls comes online and we’re met with major malfunctions and costly repairs. (A transmission line through the Long Range Mountains?! OK.) The $12.7 billion cost is bound to grow. And we the ratepayer will pay, while our numbers shrink, our loved ones move away, and those in power squabble, deflect, harass, stick us with their legal bills, point fingers across the aisle of the House of Assembly, and bank pensions that ensure their electricity bill will never be so high they have to disperse up along.

My Scottish friend says his realtor has told him he should sit on the house for at least another five years if he hopes to break even. I swallowed my lack of sympathy. Here I was missing an opportunity to beg for more funding for the arts—an industry I’ve transitioned to—so I could fix a faucet in the rental property of a foreign property owner whinging about making in Azerbaijan only a fraction of what he’d made at Hebron. I had to take the guaranteed fifty bucks, rather than write a letter for maybe a better chance at an arts grant down the road.

And it’s only now, later, as I write this that I realize I acted in the same manner that got us—that continues to get us—into the mess: the get-it-now-while-you-can, worry-about-later-later attitude. The same way our leaders refuse to think further than the next general election. The same way the people on these jobs milk what they can, without a thought about diminishing chances for future work. But maybe it doesn’t have to be one way or another. Maybe we can get what we can now and think about our long-term prospects. We can meet climate goals, ban friggin plastic bags, prioritize local industry rather than subsidize big campaign donors from Upper Canada, and we can make decisions without paying for another costly study from Ernst & Young.

And I can still write that letter.

As I was leaving the Scottish guy’s house on Springdale Street I took a peek around at the floors. He paid me fifty bucks cash (no taxes involved) and we put our boots back on. Poor guy. All around the house were electric baseboard heaters. Old ones. He might end up stuck here like the rest of us, once Muskrat comes online. Unless he takes a loss.

For him it’ll just be money. For us, if we or our loved ones decide living here has become untenable, we’ll have to give up so much more than that.

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