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Get cracking on East-West Tie, say northwest leaders

Government delays in power line expansion project causes exodus of skilled labour
Valard 7
Patience is wearing thin among northwestern Ontario leaders with the fall start date of the East-West Tie transmission line project likely be delayed again. (Valard Construction photo)

Workers who were trained to start building the East-West Tie transmission line this fall are transitioning into other industrial jobs.

This slow exodus comes from the uncertainty over when construction of the multi-million-dollar power line expansion will finally start as Ontario Energy Board (OEB) hearings begin shortly on two competing bids from NextBridge Infrastructure and Hydro One.

According to Matthew Dupuis, chief of the Red Rock Indian Band, time is of the essence and there seems to be no sense of urgency by the new Ford government to get the often-delayed project back on track.

Dupuis is also president of Supercom Industries, a contracting and training joint venture run by six First Nation communities on the north shore of Lake Superior across whose traditional land the power line project will cross.

Its mandate is to maximize First Nation involvement in the more than $700-million development by supplying skilled labour, negotiating service and supply contracts, and cultivating business partnerships.

The Supercom training program was built around the schedule of having the graduates ready to go when construction was to begin this fall.

“The idea was no gaps. There was continuous training linked to employment,” said Dupuis.

With the OEB hearing putting the project schedule on indefinite hold, Dupuis said Supercom is looking out for its graduates’ best interests by helping them secure work in the mining, forestry and road construction fields.

Thus far, their training program produced 195 skilled and semi-skilled graduates such as camp cooks and support staff; surveying, line-clearing and power line crew; heavy equipment operators and mechanics; and electricians, among a slew of other positions.

Some have found work with Barrick Gold at Hemlo and the Harte Gold mine project near White River.

Dupuis estimates there’s about 60 left in their labour pool. He doesn’t know if that departed workforce will return when the province eventually green-lights the East-West Tie.

“To tell you the truth, that’s not a concern of mine. We did this to get the workforce ready for this project.

“As someone who’s involved in employment and training, what I’m worried about is that we’re going to lose the trust of the individuals. They’re going to say, I’ve heard that story before. I took those six to seven months of my life (for training) and it never came around.”

The East-West Tie transmission line is the 450-kilometre-long power line upgrading project between Wawa and Thunder Bay.

The project involves the construction of a double-circuit 230 kilovolt (kV) transmission line along the north shore. The line would roughly parallel the existing corridor. The project was slated to be in service by late 2020.

The expanded line would provide a bigger pipeline of power to the northwest to ensure a greater reliability of supply as well as support future industrial growth, especially in mining.

Since 2010, the East-West Tie was identified by the previous Wynne government as a priority project in the province’s long-term energy strategy. But that’s on hold pending the outcome of Ontario Energy Board hearings, beginning Oct. 2.

In 2017, when project cost estimates began to balloon past $700 million, then-Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault sent the project back to the drawing board and allowed Hydro One to submit a last-minute bid proposal. The matter was referred to the energy board.

Dupuis, who objected to the Wynne government allowing Hydro One to intercede, said this delay threatens jobs and investment in the region.

“They’re taking the construction start date and pulling it backwards and we don’t know how far. That gap could be three months, six months, 12 months.”

The Supercom training program was built around the East-West Tie’s in-service date. Dupuis expects the new Ford government to stick to the schedule.

Dupuis said NextBridge’s corridor routing has been approved by all 18 north shore communities and they’ve developed a trusting relationship with Valard, the contractor selected by NextBridge to be the project manager. Hydro One, he said, is only starting its consultation with community stakeholders.

“Every community around the North Shore is in support of the NextBridge proposal,” he said. “We just don’t want to start over.”

But Dupuis said repeated calls and letters by community stakeholders into Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, and Minister of Indigenous Affairs Greg Rickford’s office have gone unanswered.

“This (project) affects every single one of his ministries.”

Dupuis emphasized that all the major development projects in northwestern Ontario and the Far North – such as the Ring of Fire and Watay Power – are reliant on the East-West Tie being completed.

“This is a link to create everything that they say they want to do, and yet there’s no urgency given to it.

“The frustration is our voices aren’t loud enough down in Toronto.”

In a statement, NextBridge expects the OEB to render a decision by year’s end.

“NextBridge and Valard had hoped they would have begun much earlier since the (leave-to-construct) application was filed 14 months ago,” the company replied by email in comments attributed to Jennifer Tidmarsh, project director of NextBridge and president of NextEra Energy Transmission.

“If a decision was made earlier, construction would have begun on Nov. 1. NextBridge and Valard have asked for a decision to be made on Dec. 31 of this year in order to begin construction on or before June 2019."

The company declined to comment if further delays might cause the construction consortium to fall apart.

“All parties are eagerly awaiting the response to be made so we can move forward.”

In a news release, Dorion Township Reeve Ed Chambers said Hydro One’s involvement has “put the entire transmission project in jeopardy, as well as the connected employment and business opportunities that our communities have spent significant time and resources preparing for.”

Chambers said his community worked with NextBridge to develop a transmission route that respects their community plan.

“The people, communities and socio-economic health of Northern Ontario are relying on this project to meet its scheduled construction and in-service commitments. This is a priority project for Ontario but it is of even greater significance to our regionally impacted communities."

Similarly, the Common Voice Northwest Energy Task Force has thrown its support behind NextBridge as the builder and operator of the proposed East West Tie.

The group said NextBridge has spent four years preparing a “detailed understanding of the requirements and costs associated with the transmission line, while Hydro One is at the preliminary estimate state of their work,” said the task force’s co-chair, Iain Angus, in a statement.

Angus said Hydro One’s suggestion they can build the line for $100 million less than NextBridge underestimates the cost of a new environmental assessment, the cost of bypassing Pukaskwa Park, and fails to address the cost to the electrical system of any delay past 2020.

“All of these costs make the Hydro One Networks proposal the most expensive of the two proponents.”

Northwest leaders have also expressed concern about providing more power to meet the demand of new mines coming online in the region and question what the Ford government’s regional power strategy is on the heels of Ontario Power Generation’s decision last summer to permanently shutter the Thunder Bay Generating Station.