Council, mayor compare notes in water plant vendor impasse
Sharp critique of Earth Tech and USFilter

Douglas Hadden
March 25, 2003
PAWTUCKET -- A spotty report card on projects elsewhere is raising new questions over who should be the vendor to design, build and operate a $45 million, 25 million gallons per day water treatment facility for the Pawtucket Water Supply Board.
A three-member subpanel of the City Council, which voted to hire USFilter, met for the fourth time Monday with Mayor James E. Doyle. Doyle has favored rival vendor Earth Tech, whose bid was $3.5 million lower.

"Unfortunately," said City Councilor Mary Bray, "they did not make our confidence grow any stronger in them," Bray said of Earth Tech.

With a council-administration impasse on the issue while the 65-year-old plant continues to deteriorate, Council President John Barry last month appointed Bray and Councilors Robert Carr and Chip Hoyas to work on finding common ground with the administration to break what is now a 14-month deadlock.

Bray cited negative comments in phone calls with the mayors of Glen Falls, N.Y. and Gardner, Mass. regarding Earth Tech.

In Gardner, where the firm built a 3-million-gallons-per-day system, a core membrane system the city decided to add on has had long-standing problems.

Relatedly, Bray said the plant has experienced four "turbidity spikes," though the muddiness did not require a boil-water directive. "They have yet to provide the quality and quantity of water" the system is designed for, she said.

Bray said Mayor Bob Regan of Glens Falls, N.Y. told her Earth Tech submitted a bid there that was "way above" an inflation index. "So they felt that (Earth Tech) did not deal with them in good faith at all."

Bray said the mayor did note Earth Tech is still scheduled to operate and maintain the plant once it’s built by another vendor, and the city was able to do a less extensive rebid for just that portion.

Pamela Marchand, PWSB chief engineer and general manager, said Earth Tech in Gardner had problems with the contractor’s work on the membrane system, but has made all repairs at no cost to the city. As of a three-day test last week, the system may have finally been fixed, she said.

But Bray said the mayor in Gardner said Earth Tech sometimes seemed "almost too eager to please."

She was apparently referring to the system the city wanted but which Earth Tech in its original design felt was not needed.

The firm agreed to the city’s wishes, incorporating changes that led to the poor performance.

"I can’t even imagine after hearing things like that," Bray told Marchand, "that you’d even want to deal with a company like that."

But Marchand said Earth Tech had installed the membrane system to the subcontractor’s specifications, then, over his opposition when it didn’t work correctly, did a redesign for type of water and volume. Given the subcontractor problems, "I don’t see how any firm, to tell you the truth, could have done any differently," Marchand said.

Carr said his impression after looking into projects by Earth Tech was "kind of a mixed review," with the fact-gathering not likely to change a doubter into a supporter or vice versa.

Doyle agreed he was getting "mixed signals" about Gardner. But he said he was told a water plant Earth Tech built in Fitchburg, Mass. (about half the size of the one proposed for Pawtucket) had gone well and he will contact officials there for more direct information.

Hoyas, as he has previously, offered to visit area water facilities if that will help in the evaluation.

Marchand said that before voting for Earth Tech, Water Board members had visited its projects in Fitchburg, Gardner, and Newport, a wastewater plant. Marchand said the public works director in Newport had strong praise for Earth Tech’s cooperation.

Bray told Doyle the council understood he was looking to reach a point where the council could reconsider its vote. In November, the council shot down funding for a contract with Earth Tech.

"We all want to get this settled one way or the other," Bray said. But "with the information we have now, there would be no reason to send it back" for a council revote, she said.

Hoyas he remained open to any new information that could lead out of the impasse.

"Myself, I have very open ears rights now. So I’m looking for this to be corrected," Hoyas said. If a solid new determination can be made that Doyle would stand behind, "then I’m going to stand behind you," Hoyas told the mayor.

Apparently sitting with the sharpest engineering eyes in Doyle’s office Monday was Christopher Hoyas, who provided the key technical insight for the day.

Christopher, 9, of Cincinnati, was brought to the public meeting by his uncle so he could see "how government works." When the machine taping the meeting stalled, it was the Ohio Little Leaguer who pointed out the tape had come unwound. Doyle had a secretary bring in a new one.

USFilter has also been involved in some negative news of late. Alleged bribe-related testimony provided under immunity by its official Sandra Sullivan, who has represented the firm in Pawtucket, was reviewed by a Connecticut federal jury last week just before returning a series of guilty verdicts on corruption charges against Bridgeport Mayor Joseph Ganim. Prosecutors alleged Ganim and two others shook down Professional Services Group, which in 1999 merged with USFilter, for hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep and extend a treatment plant contract.