\Fri, Nov. 7, 2008 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

Tar ponds costs worry MLA
But minister says project won't go over budget

By DAVID JACKSON Provincial Reporter

A New Democrat MLA is worried management problems at the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency could leave provincial taxpayers on the hook for cost overruns on the $400-million project.

But the minister responsible for the project says he's confident it will come in on time and on budget.

Cape Breton Nova MLA Gordie Gosse said Thursday at Province House that his concerns stem from issues senior government officials and an independent consultant raised earlier this year.

Mr. Gosse produced a May email from David Darrow, deputy minister of transportation and infrastructure renewal, that expressed misgivings about the Sydney Tar Ponds Agency. Mr. Gosse had obtained the email through a freedom-of-information request.

"Recent developments have caused key stakeholders, including me, to doubt the 20-some- person agency's ability to deliver the project on time and within budget," Mr. Darrow wrote in an email to a Finance Department bureaucrat.

"Dysfunctional, lacking focus, preoccupation with internal conflicts, lacking leadership are just a few of the terms being used in reference to the agency of late."

Mr. Darrow pushed for an independent operational audit, which Grant Thornton completed in July. It cost about $60,000.

That same month, the department's executive director of operations wrote a briefing note to minister Murray Scott that said the project's independent engineer raised "significant concerns" about "slippage in the schedule, and original cost estimates are escalating." The briefing note also pointed out the federal-provincial agreement on the project says the province will pay the cost overruns that result from mismanagement.

Mr. Gosse said that's his biggest concern. "It's going to be taxpayers' dollars, so that's why the public should be concerned about the way this is being handled," Mr. Gosse said.

Mr. Scott dismissed Mr. Gosse's worries. The minister said the province put a new CEO in place at the tar ponds agency after the audit. In August, Kevin MacDonald started in the job, replacing Frank Potter, who was shuffled to Nova Scotia Lands Inc.

Mr. Scott said he's pleased with how the cleanup is going, and it's setting an example for how to clean up environmental disasters. "I'm very proud that that work is ongoing and I look forward to meeting that, not only on budget, but on time in the year 2014," the minister said in question period.

Mr. Scott accused Mr. Gosse of merely trying to put a negative spin on a positive project.

The federal government is paying 70 per cent, or $280 million, of the project's cost.

Among Grant Thornton's findings was the lack of a job description for the agency's CEO.

( djackson@herald.ca)