We’ll never know why Hydro-Quebec’s system failed prematurely in the 1998 ice storm. That’s the conclusion of the Nicolet commission, which has released its report into Canada’s worst recorded disaster.

Hydro-Quebec failed to compile data on why its lines collapsed, the commission found. Clean-up crews also didn’t safeguard damaged components of the failed lines.

The data and damaged equipment were the smoking gun of the $3-billion disaster, which took 30 lives. A look at the equipment would have explained why so many of Hydro-Quebec’s transmission towers failed before they should have, the commission said. Were they old, poorly built or badly maintained, as some experts alleged?

We’ll never know. ‘‘The commission has received only fragmentary information regarding this equipment,” the report said.

The inquiry, headed by Roger Nicolet, was created last spring to study the ice storm. It heard from 300 witnesses and spent over $5 million, issuing its report last month.

The commission said it had problems getting other information out of Hydro-Quebec, including detailed studies of the damage to its lines. These studies have never been made public, the commission said – even though they “certainly would have allowed a better understanding of the events that provoked the disintegration in cascades of certain lines.”

Also not released: Hydro-Quebec’s maintenance reports for the years prior to the storm. These reports could have shown whether H-Q neglected its grid.

What little information Hydro-Quebec did provide was often contradictory and erroneous.

Nicolet’s problem was he wasn’t given the full powers of a commission of inquiry; he couldn’t grant witnesses immunity or subpoena documents or testimony.

The lack of information delayed the report’s release by five months. Originally scheduled on Nov. 30 – a week before the Quebec election – the report was delayed twice by Hydro’s stalling in releasing documents.

The lack of information also prevented the commission from fulfilling its mandate of explaining what went wrong with Hydro-Quebec’s system. “In these conditions,” the report said, “the commission can’t pretend to have realized a quantitative study of the phenomena associated with the power-line failures during the ice storm.”

And something definitely did go wrong. This, at least, the commission was able to establish without question. The first line to collapse gave way on January 6, the ice storm’s second day – well before it reached the maximum ice load it was designed for. A single ruptured U-bolt caused a 730,000-volt tower to collapse, pulling down nine others. The U-bolt was not preserved for study and the commission couldn’t get any information about why it snapped. The next day, two 230,000-volt lines collapsed in the Eastern Townships, again before reaching their maximum ice loads. This led to the worst havoc of the entire crisis, as 150,000 people entered a three-week blackout in the “Dark Triangle.” Again, Hydro-Quebec provided only sketchy information on the equipment that failed.

In the end, the commission couldn’t even get Hydro-Quebec to make the simple admission that its lines failed prematurely, except in one case.