Hydro-Quebec and Premier Lucien Bouchard are under the gun for the handling (or mishandling) of the Storm of the Century.

The Nation has obtained information that suggests Hydro-Quebec’s power system may have disintegrated so quickly because it was propped up by aging, outdated towers, some so old they should have been replaced 20 years ago. Many were erected around World War II. They didn’t have a prayer of going toe-to-toe with El Nino.

Nearly 80 per cent of the high-voltage towers that collapsed in the storm were over 30 years old and some were as old as 70. They were brittle contraptions that snapped like toothpicks when the most devastating storm in Canada’s history blew in.

The towers also may have been inadequately maintained due to recent cutbacks and mass layoffs at Hydro-Quebec, possibly contributing further to the disaster. Over the years, Hydro workers warned their bosses several times of the danger of the aging power system, but nothing was done, according to a utility employee who requested anonymity.

As we went to press, Hydro was expected to release a detailed study of what went wrong in its system. For now, leaders of Hydro’s unions are keeping quiet on whether the aging network contributed to the disaster, saying they will wait for the utility’s analysis before commenting.

But Louis Champagne, president of the Hydro engineers’ union, said any analysis cannot avoid looking at how the aging system and falling maintenance levels may have contributed to a calamity that cost at least 24 lives and $1.5 billion.

“We have to look at this. It’s an

interesting hypothesis that we can’t ignore,” Champagne said.

One of Hydro’s top executives confirmed that 800 of the over 1,000 towers that collapsed were built 30 or more years ago. Many of the downed towers were actually older than 50 years, the normal life expectancy of a power-transmission tower, Yves Filion, HQ’s deputy director-general and head of finances, told The Nation.

Since these older towers were built, Hydro has improved its tower design to make it safer. But only 230 of the collapsed towers, or 20 per cent, were made to the newer, more secure design. In the storm, the older sections of the system came crashing down almost right away, but eventually even the newer towers were overwhelmed.

Filion acknowledged that the aging towers were “more vulnerable” to the storm. Many were made from wood, not steel as in the newer design. “The older towers were more vulnerable, but not because of age. It was because of the design criteria,” he said.

Surprisingly, Hydro-Quebec has no norms for when a tower should be replaced, according to Raymond Gravel, another HQ union leader. Gravel said “a majority” of the downed towers were over 40 years old.

Over at Ontario Hydro, newer lines survived the storm with less damage than older ones. “Certainly our newer lines didn’t collapse. We didn’t see the same level of destruction as on the older lines,” said Al Manchee, Ontario Hydro spokesman.

“An old line is going to be more vulnerable when you push it to its design limits,” said Ian Goodman,a Boston, Mass, energy consultant. “It’s the weakest link that ^^decides if the whole thingcollapses.”