CommentaryNovember 2010
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More MWH Problems -  in Portland and Seattle

by Kari Olsen

As reported by the SLO Coast Journal, Montgomery, Watson, Harza Global (MWH), Morro Bay's wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) design contractor has faced recent allegations of serious wrongdoing in New Orleans, Cape Coral, Florida, and Los Osos.  Resident researchers have uncovered additional allegations made in Oregon and Washington.  Serious charges were made by the Oregon-based organization, Friends of the Reservoirs.  On its website, which includes protest letters submitted to Federal Government officials, the organization accuses MWH of inappropriately influencing government decisions on the undergrounding of reservoirs.  In addition, a major engineering design error by the firm reportedly required a costly repair to two underground reservoirs in Seattle. 

Allegations of Inappropriate Government Influence Intended to Generate Business

Friends of the Reservoirs alleges that MWH inappropriately influenced the development of the EPA's  Long Term 2 Surface Water Treatment Rule (LT2 rule).  As stated on the EPA Web site, "The purpose of the rule is to reduce disease incidence associated with Cryptosporidium and other disease-causing microorganisms in drinking water. The rule will supplement existing regulations by targeting additional Cryptosporidium treatment requirements to higher risk systems. The rule also contains provisions to reduce risks from uncovered finished water storage facilities and to ensure that systems maintain microbial protection as they take steps to reduce the formation of disinfection byproducts. The rule will apply to all systems that use surface water or ground water under the direct influence of surface water."

Friends of the Reservoirs has expressed concerns that covered reservoirs may actually pose a greater health hazard than open ones, noting that, Multnomah County Health "acknowledges that science is lacking with regard to open reservoirs stating that literature addresses the potential for adverse health outcomes from uncovered storage. However, a substantially larger volume of literature documents not only the same potential problems with covered storage, but also more importantly documents actual public health illness and deaths only with covered storage. EPA documents unique public health risks only with covered storage, cancer-causing nitrification."

Still MWH and others pushed the EPA to adopt stringent regulations requiring that reservoirs be covered to protect public health.  According to a December 3, 2008 Friends of the Reservoirs letter to Senator Ron Wyden, "Many community stakeholders have concerns regarding corporate involvement in the rulemaking process. Calgon Carbon, who held the patent for the technology (Ultra Violet Light Radiation) that most systems will use to comply with the rule, was deeply involved in the rule development, as was Montgomery, Watson, Harza Global (MWH).  MWH builds treatment plants, underground reservoir tanks, dams, and other projects nationwide and around the world.  It is possible that the power of these special interests may have determined the final outcome - a rule that would increase their profits at the expense of Portland and other municipalities with safe drinking water."  The same concerns were stated in a December 15, 2008 letter to Transition Team for President-Elect Obama  

The LT2 rule hit home for Friends of the Reservoirs when it was decided that the rule should be applied to Portland's Bull Run reservoir.  Questioning the need for any action to address pollution in area reservoirs, a letter sent by the group to Portland's Mayor and Commissioners states that, "Scientific data from the recent American Water Works Association Research Association Foundation study AwwarF 3021 testing large volumes of water at the outlets of Portland's open reservoirs demonstrated that there are zero infectious Cryptosporidium in our open reservoirs.  Burying, covering, or additionally treating the open reservoirs will not reduce the level of infectious Cryptosporidium to below Zero. Portland's Total Coliform Rule data meets EPA standards. Our reservoirs are not subject to surface water runoff; they are cleaned twice a year."

In a July 19, 2009 letter to Portland's Mayor and City Commissioners, Friends of the Reservoirs stated, "First and foremost the Friends of the Reservoirs (FOR) support alternative compliance strategies to address the onerous and unsupported LT2 'treatment technique' requirements. Construction of an additional Bull Run treatment plant will provide no measurable public health benefit, degrade our system, create many new risks to our Bull Run watershed, result in significant annual rate increases, and add significant new debt to an already debt-laden Water Bureau.  Construction of an additional Bull Run treatment plant will start a never-ending 25-30-year treatment plant build cycle. Any new treatment plant will add to the City's carbon footprint."

The letter went on to state, "Montgomery, Watson, Harza Global (MWH), employer of former  PWB (Portland Water Board) official, Joe Glicker has pushed for a Bull Run filtration plant for 20 years. MWH, via a 4-year consultant contract controlled and thus tainted the 2001/02 Bull Run Treatment Panel process MWH led this panel and all related 'public processes' while concurrently negotiating the flawed EPA LT2 rule now forcing unnecessary corporate-benefiting construction. "  Footnotes to the letter stated that,  "Citizens" selected for the 2001/02 MWH led panel includes filtration supporters CH2Mhill (corporation), TVWD Greg Diloretto (wholesale customer interested in Bull Run ownership), the US Forest Service (which fought legislative protections for Bull Run and other domestic water supplies), and an engineer. MWH framed the push-poll survey questions and framed and presented all panel and focus group information," and "MWH sat on both sides of the EPA LT2 rule negotiation table with Rhodes Trussell, 32-year MWH CEO on the EPA Science Advisory Board Drinking Water Committee and Joe Glicker, MWH brought to the LT2 table by a PWB consultant contract."

Allegations of Portland Water Board corruption were also made by Friends of the Reservoirs, in a May 10, 2010 posting titled, "The Ugly Truth about the Portland Water Bureau and their Corporate Ties,"  which states, "The Portland Water Bureau has devised a strategy for awarding consultant contracts to preferred consultants avoiding public transparency while creating an unfair advantage for insider consulting firms. Utilizing Flexible Service contracts (on-call professional service contracts) the Portland Water Bureau has given Bull Run Supply Water Treatment pre-design work to their preferred engineering consultants, i.e CH2M Hill, thereby giving those consultants an insider advantage for larger design contracts. While Flexible Service contracts are brought to Council for approval, the specific work performed under those contracts does not require additional review or authorization by Council, thus avoiding public transparency."

The May 10 statement also says, "Joe Glicker is a former Portland Water Bureau official previously with Montgomery, Watson, Harza Global (MWH), currently VP at CH2M Hill. Glicker is well known to Bull Run advocates as the Portland Water Bureau's favorite cozy consultant. Since Glicker changed employ to CH2M Hill in 2006, major capital improvement design contracts have followed him to CH2M Hill, i.e. the Sandy River Crossing Tunnel, Powell Butte II buried tank, large Flexible Service contract, UV Radiation Treatment plant design.   As regional president of MWH (1995-2006) Glicker was awarded many lucrative contracts related to construction of a Bull Run treatment plant and burying in town storage reservoirs. Glicker was hired under a five-year PWB contract (1997-2003) to assist in negotiating an Environmental Protection Agency regulation, the LT2 rule. As applied to Portland, the rule benefits Glicker and his corporate associates."

The Outcome for Portland

Statements on the Portland water bureau Web site appear to indicate that the Water bureau and the consultants have won this battle.  On the site, it is stated, "Portland has a schedule to replace its open finished drinking water reservoirs with enclosed storage by December 31, 2020." and, "Commissioner Randy Leonard, the Commissioner-in-Charge of the Water Bureau requested direction from the EPA regarding how the City could pursue a potential variance to the open reservoir requirements of the LT2 rule. EPA has since responded indicating that variances are not applicable to the open reservoir requirements of the LT2 rule."

A Costly MWH Engineering Design Error in Seattle

A June 17,2009 story in the Seattle Times reports an error that has "triggered a massive do-over project involving the removal of waterproof coating applied to Beacon Hill's new covered reservoir"  Another new reservoir in West Seattle was also affected.   The coatings that lined both reservoirs were removed with pressure washers. 

According to the story,  "The projects are part of a $150 million effort to underground four city reservoirs, including another one in West Seattle, and turn their concrete covers into planted parks."   and, "The spongy rubberized coating, which was sprayed on and topped with a liner resembling a thick, shiny tablecloth with fuzzy backing, was applied last summer to the reservoirs at South Beacon Street, and in West Seattle at Southwest Myrtle Street."  The product was reportedly applied  "according to specifications written by MWH, a Broomfield, Colo., engineering and design firm."

The reporter indicated that the City of Seattle decided not to make another attempt to use the MWH-recommended approach.  "Once the concrete is stripped bare, the city wants a thick coating of rubberized asphalt to be applied to the covers. "We know that works," said utility spokesman Cornell Amaya."

Similarities to Local Resident Concerns

Portland residents' allegations of inappropriate government influence by MWH, have some similarities to allegations made and concerns expressed by residents of Morro Bay and Los Osos.  In both communities, it has been suggested that former MWH employees in positions of influence have steered local projects toward contracts with MWH, when better alternatives were available.

Some Morro Bay residents have suggested that a conflict of interest may have affected the town's choice of a design contractor for the wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) upgrade.  The town's Capital Projects Manager, Dylan Wade, is a former MWH employee; yet he served on the committee that recommended MWH for the City's wastewater treatment plant design contract.  MWH was recommended by the staff even though the firm's bid was the highest received.  Wade has repeatedly recommended that a proposal from competing firm, PERC Water, not be considered, despite the fact that PERC has stated it can save the City millions over the project favored by Wade.  Interestingly, Wade was working for MWH in Los Osos when the Los Osos CSD fired the company amid numerous allegations of wrongdoing, such as overbilling.

Los Osos residents have complained that County Public Services Director Pavo Ogren, who is also a former MWH employee, exerts inappropriate influence over decisions regarding the Los Osos sewer project.   Despite the numerous accusations of wrongdoing that the Los Osos CSD leveled at MWH in 2006, it appears to many that Ogren is attempting to steer the Board of Supervisors toward once again awarding the contract for the project to MWH. 

In a 2009 Commentary article by Lisa Schicker, published by the New Times, the author states, "Last March, without explanation, the county eliminated a top-ranked engineering team guaranteeing a 20-percent savings over competitors for building the wastewater project. Instead, they selected the giant multi-national firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) as one of three short-listed firms for both major contracts.  The interview panel recommending MWH was comprised of county employees and consultants, selected by Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. These consultants receive regular no-bid contracts from Ogren and happen to be former business partners of MWH. Ogren placed himself and recently-fired Gail Wilcox on the appeals panel.    MWH designed the failed project for the Los Osos Community Services District (LOCSD); an expensive downtown project that voters rejected.  They had a habit of securing reasonable contracts that were repeatedly "amended" into millions of dollars of additional costs; essentially no-bid, no-competition. Their last so-called "amendment" with LOCSD was a no-bid contract for $7.48 million dollars; one they recommended for themselves.  Ogren was the LOCSD's first manager; he arranged MWH's first contract . . . ."

Additional concerns appear in a Rock of the Coast story, "Ogren's MWH Gravity Bias Costing Los Osos Tens of Millions, which quotes a program director from a competing firm as having said,  "Montgomery Watson Harza was favored with their own outdated (2004) gravity sewer design, even with an apparent violation of California Public Contract Code 20133, that specifically states, "Any architect or engineer retained by the county to assist in the development of the project specific documents shall not be eligible to participate in the preparation of a bid with any design-build entity for that project."  Stated in black and white on Carollo's SLO County contract are the MWH line items that contain verbiage about determining Viable Project Alternatives. Not only is "Determining Project Specific Alternatives" specific, but it gives the appearance that MWH was involved in steering the project alternatives selection.""

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