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Workers continue to construct the province's new gas plant near Sarnia, Ontario, June 1, 2015.GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail

Around noon on a Thursday in April, a vertical support beam gave way inside a power plant under construction near Sarnia. The floor above the beam, on which the plant's turbine was sitting, pressed down with 100 tonnes of force, putting a crack in a column and sending dozens of workers fleeing for safety.

"There is a turbine sitting on top of the column which is now showing a large crack," a government inspector wrote in a report on the incident at the Green Electron Power Plant. "Structural damage and possible failure."

Fearing the building was structurally unsound, tradespeople refused to go back to work. It took five days and a visit by the Ministry of Labour to resolve the problem and get construction running again.

This was only one of the most dramatic incidents at the 289-megawatt plant.

Green Electron is a product of the Ontario Liberal government's gas plant scandal, in which then-premier Dalton McGuinty cancelled plants in Mississauga and Oakville at a cost of $1.1-billion to placate angry locals before the 2011 election.

Eastern Power Ltd. and its subsidiary Greenfield South, which had been building the Mississauga plant, negotiated a lucrative compensation package from the government: $56.4-million and a contract for a plant in Sarnia, plus a $45-million interest-free loan to get construction started.

But the work has been beset by problems – raising serious questions about the management of a power project worth hundreds of millions of public dollars, and adding another headache for a government still reeling from the gas plant debacle.

Through reviews of government documents and interviews with a half-dozen Eastern employees, The Globe and Mail has learned:

  • The provincial Ministry of Labour has written 192 orders on health and safety problems at Green Electron, ranging from live electrical panels with no covers to battery fumes accumulating in unventilated rooms to scaffolding not up to standard. In the past six months, one worker broke his arm at the site and another went to hospital after receiving an electric shock.
  • Workers accuse Eastern Power of punishing employees who raise safety concerns, including by firing them or not paying them for attending meetings with labour ministry inspectors. The Ontario Labour Relations Board has twice ordered the company to compensate improperly terminated employees.
  • One of Eastern’s suppliers accuses the company of underpaying it more than $100,000 and has gone to court to recoup the funds.

Eastern Power's owners, brothers Hubert and Gregory Vogt, did not respond to The Globe's requests for comment, including an e-mailed list of questions.

Labour Minister Kevin Flynn acknowledged problems at Green Electron and that he tried to sort them out late last year. He said he arranged a meeting of government officials, Eastern, and union representatives to discuss improving health and safety and labour relations at the site.

"We did pay some special attention there. Found some work that needed to be done, found some areas for improvements," he said in an interview this week. "My understanding is that site is operating the same as any other site in the province of Ontario."

Unions representing the workers declined to comment or did not return messages. Six Eastern workers spoke on condition their names not be printed.

A slew of troubles

When the Liberals gave Eastern a new gas plant contract in 2011, the government was determined to avoid the political hassles that sank the Mississauga project. So they put it where locals were certain to have no objection: Sarnia.

The city of 72,000 is the centre of Canada's petroleum processing industry, and its residents are used to living near oil and gas facilities. Stretching for several kilometres south of the red-brick downtown is the forest of smokestacks known as Chemical Valley – sprawling oil refineries, petrochemical plants and power-generating stations.

Green Electron looks modest by comparison. Surrounded by farmers' fields 10 kilometres south of town on Oil Springs Line, it consists of a white turbine building about four storeys high, a cooling tower and a single stack.

But behind this innocuous facade, Ministry of Labour work orders show a slew of troubles.

During a two-week period last December, for instance, ministry inspectors wrote 19 orders for the site. The problems included "defective" portable generators with non-functioning grounding equipment, "a worker that broke his arm on the project," and a man-lift left unattended while its bucket was raised in the air.

Last month, inspector Dan Dignard wrote nine separate orders in a single day. The plant's temporary electrical service that powers work tools and lights was feeding the electrical system for the plant itself. Despite this, doors to electrical rooms were open for anyone to come and go, and there were no procedures to ensure workers did not touch live wires. "Workers had access to the live electrical hazard," he wrote, adding that "work was being done in and near live electrical equipment."

He further found there was no ventilation system to disperse battery fumes that collected in the plant's electrical rooms. And scaffolding on top of one building had no documents showing it was properly engineered or loaded.

In response to The Globe's questions, the Ministry of Labour said it has issued 192 orders to Eastern since April, 2013. The company has dealt with all but four relatively recent ones.

The ministry said it is aware of two injuries at Green Electron: a worker who fractured his wrist falling on ice last December, and one who received an electric shock while working on a 120-volt system outside one of the plant's buildings. Both went to hospital. The site has had no critical injuries or fatalities, the ministry said.

Stuart E. Rudner, a Toronto labour lawyer not involved in the Eastern situation, said the volume of orders seems high. "192 orders over two years sounds like a lot. I don't know the context, but that suggests there are some serious problems," he wrote in an e-mail.

Speaking out

Workers at Green Electron accuse Eastern of punishing anyone who speaks up about the plant's troubles.

In a January, 2014, complaint to the Ontario Labour Relations Board (OLRB), the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners alleged Eastern fired several workers or made them quit because of the "irrational, unreasonable, and often unsafe management of the Project," including a foreman who was dismissed when Eastern "forced" him "to place employees in unsafe positions and complete tasks without regard to proper safety procedures."

In a different case, the OLRB ruled that Eastern improperly laid off electrician Gerry Card after he tried to "challenge the employer" at a health and safety meeting last July. The board ordered the company to pay Mr. Card $10,203.04 in lost wages.

In June, 2014, the labour board found Eastern wrongly dismissed electrician Brian Marriott after making him perform a task that was not in his job description – helping lift a generator onto a building in heavy wind. Board member Brian McLean called Mr. Marriott's termination "arbitrary" and ordered the company to give him back his job.

In correspondence with the Ministry of Labour last December obtained by The Globe, a worker health and safety representative at the site wrote that the company had not dealt with 14 Ministry of Labour orders. The next month, he wrote that Eastern had terminated the employment of four electricians, including two health and safety reps, for raising safety concerns.

Last November, a Ministry of Labour document says, inspector Todd Mayhead met with about 25 Eastern workers in their lunch trailer on the site to discuss safety. After he left, Eastern refused to pay the workers for the time they spent in the meeting, they alleged.

Mr. Flynn called it unacceptable for companies to punish workers for speaking out, but that the OLRB deals with such matters. Since he intervened late last year, he said, Eastern has improved. He said its more recent problems are not unusual on a large construction site.

"I think it would be unreasonable to expect … that this site is going to go through the rest of its construction without any incidents," he said. "Were they straying away from [employment standards] earlier on? I would say probably they were. Have we got them back in line? I would say we do."

Not only workers are having trouble with Eastern.

A supplier, Sarnia Concrete Products Inc., is suing because it says Eastern subsidiary Greenfield South did not pay $136,330.40 of a $1.3-million contract to provide concrete to the Green Electron site. (In its statement of defence, Greenfield says Sarnia Concrete's invoices contained mathematical errors and duplicate charges, and that the company also supplied weaker concrete product than was specified in the contract.)

In March, The Globe reported that Union Gas has accused Eastern of building a pipeline to connect the power plant to a gas supply without getting permission from the Ontario Energy Board.

The aftermath

When the beam dropped in April, Eastern called for an assessment from its senior structural engineer.

The engineer's report on the April 16 incident found that the beam dropping had transferred about 1,000 kilonewtons – 100 tons of force – onto the plant's foundation. After Eastern put the beam back and grouted it there, the engineer found the structure was solid and declared it safe for workers to return.

The workers refused to enter the plant building until a third-party engineer – someone not on Eastern's payroll – had examined it. On Monday, April 20, they disobeyed Eastern's order to go back to work. Eastern called the Ministry of Labour to report the work refusal, and the government dispatched Mr. Mayhead.

After closing the site, Mr. Mayhead had government engineers check it, and met with representatives of Eastern and the union. He declared the site structurally sound and reopened it.