BC government withholds competing bids for Site C contract

By Nelson Bennett, Business in Vancouver

Call it the $1.75 billion question the B.C. government and BC Hydro refuse to answer.

On November 25, 2015, BC Hydro announced it had awarded a main contract for the construction of $9 billion Site C dam to a consortium called Peace River Hydro Partners (PRHP).

The consortium includes ACCIONA Infrastructure Canada Inc., Petrowest Corp. and Samsung C&T Canada Ltd.

It was one of four companies and consortiums that had been shortlisted in the bidding process.

BC Hydro did not give an exact number for what the contract was worth, but ballparked it at more than $1.5 billion. On December 25, 2015, it put the value of the contract at “approximately” $1.75 billion.

But was that the lowest bid?

When asked that question, BC Hydro refused to answer. And in a response to a freedom of information request filed on November 26, 2015 by Business in Vancouver, the B.C. government continues to refuse to answer the question.

More than three months after BIV filed an FOI request asking how much each company or consortium bid, the government has responded with 26 pages of internal emails and documents from the Ministry of Energy and Mines that do not answer the central question: Was the PRHP bid provide the best value for taxpayers and ratepayers?
In redacting the bid amounts, the government cites Section 21 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA), which states information can be withheld if its release could be deemed harmful to the business interests of a third party.

This section has been challenged before in a number of cases, and the Information and Privacy Commissioner has ruled the public interest of releasing information on expenditures of public money outweighs the protection of private interests.

But the process can take a year or more.

“The freedom of information laws and precedents are pretty clear in this matter,” said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “They have to release it.

“But this is all part of dragging their heels as long as possible, hoping that applicants lose interest or hoping that, by the time it comes out, it’s irrelevant.

“The minister should order BC Hydro to release this information immediately and save everyone the time, energy and money of having to fight this all the way to the information and privacy commissioner.”

About the only thing the FOI response tells the public is that there seemed to be some urgency in getting a public announcement on the contract made. It also raises some question about the thoroughness of the process.

In one email exchange released to BIV, one Ministry of Energy and Mines staffer says he is aware of only one document that cites the price for the contract – a Powerpoint presentation.

“The attached ppt presentation is the only document I have that says anything about the price of the main civil contract work procurement for Site C,” the email states.

That means the government’s FOI staff either didn’t do a very through search for documents containing information on the contract bids, or there is a surprising lack of documentation on the subject.

One email from BC Hydro CEO Jessica McDonald on November 16, 2015, suggests there was a bit of a rush to finalize and announce the awarding of the contract.

“There is a very tight timeframe for an announcement of this award,” McDonald writes in an email. That urgency is not explained as the following sentences are redacted.

A request for qualifications went out in April 2014 and a short list of four companies made in July 2014. The other three companies and consortiums selected were:

• AFD JV consortium – Aecon Constructors, Flatiron Constructors Canada Ltd., and Dragados Canada Inc.;

• Cleangroup Constructors consortium – Ferrovial Agroman Canada Inc., Norther American Enterprises Ltd. and EBC Inc.; and

• Salini-Impregilo S.p.A.

The award to PRHP was criticized by the BC Building Trades organization, which said the consortium has no agreement with B.C. trades unions. They fear that means jobs could go to temporary foreign workers.

The organization has filed its own FOI request on the particulars of the bidding and awarding of the Site C dam contract.

“They wanted 28 grand,” said BC Building Trades executive board member Brian Cochrane.

The organization has appealed the $28,000 charge to the Information and Privacy Commissioner.