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Iraqs future entices industry

Two Portland firms may be in line to help rebuild after the war

CH2M Hill Inc., the big engineering company that got its start in Oregon, plans to join a ministampede of U.S. and foreign companies seeking a share of the lucrative job of rebuilding Iraq.

The firm's Portland office with its more than 200 engineers, many of whom have experience in the Middle East and an expertise in environmental services and water projects, are likely to be an integral part of Denver-based CH2M Hill's efforts if it gets the green light.

Portland-based Northwest Pipe Co. also is positioning itself to pick up business in postwar Iraq.

Although the setbacks that coalition forces have suffered in recent days make it seem premature to look past a war that Bush administration officials now say could be a protracted one, some postwar contracts were let earlier this week.

And emergency help may be needed long before the war is over. For example, in Basra, Iraq's second largest city, disruption of electricity and water services threatens a humanitarian crisis as the coalition moves to consolidate its position there.

CH2M Hill engineers already are working on water projects in Jordan, Egypt and Israel's West Bank under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, the government agency charged with restoring Iraq's infrastructure.

'We will definitely be a subcontractor if we have the opportunity,' said Doug Griffes, CH2M Hill's vice president and director of business development of international water projects.

Northwest Pipe recently hired a salesperson for the Middle East and has struck up relationships with large engineering companies working with AID, said Brian Dunham, the company's chief executive officer. But, he conceded, 'it's an embryonic venture for us.'

Whether the steel pipe manufacturing company or CH2M Hill gets a share of the work in postwar Iraq may depend on their ties with the contractors selected this week by AID.

The Bush administration invited only a handful of companies to bid for the estimated $900 million in AID contracts, including Parsons Corp., Halliburton Co., Fluor Corp., Louis Berger Group and Bechtel Corp., which recently closed its Portland office. Those companies in turn would hire subcontractors.

Halliburton already has won a contract to fight fires at oil fields; Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America got the nod to manage the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr.

CH2M Hill may have a bit of an edge with one of the invited bidders, San Francisco-based Bechtel, a company it has previously teamed up with on international projects.

More urgent work Ñ such as repairs to the water network in Basra Ñ is expected to be handled by contracts through the Army Corps of Engineers, CH2M Hill's Griffes said.

Basra's water supply was cut off as a result of bomb damage to the city's power station, prompting the International Committee of the Red Cross to bring in emergency power generators until the pumps could be repaired.

Griffes wouldn't speculate on CH2M Hill's chances of winning a share of the postwar Iraqi reconstruction work, but he said the company could conceivably work in Basra through a contract with the World Health Organization or the Red Cross, which typically does not have funds for massive repair projects but teams with agencies that do.

'There's a significance of water to building peace in the Middle East,' he said.

Middle East expertise

CH2M Hill Ñ founded in Corvallis by an Oregon State University civil engineering professor, Fred Merryfield, and three former students Ñ has worked in the Middle East since the 1980s. Projects have ranged from the planning of a wastewater treatment system in the West Bank city of Hebron in the occupied territories to desalinating water from the Dead Sea in Jordan.

The Engineering News-Record ranks the firm third among the country's top 200 environmental engineering firms.

Several engineers in the firm's Portland office are seasoned Middle East hands.

Project manager Chris Arts recently returned from a year and a half stint in Jerusalem working on the $40 million West Bank project, which pinpointed available water supplies in the region and constructed deep wells and water conveyance systems. Colleague Claudia Zahorcak worked on a project in Jordan.

'The Middle East is a fascinating place, I'd have no problem going back when it's safe,' Arts said.

Senior project manager Scott Dethloff, who inspected northern Iraq's damaged water treatment plants after the Persian Gulf War, is weighing a return to the region.

As an International Rescue Committee volunteer in the multinational Operation Provide Comfort in 1991, Dethloff worked on public health and sanitation projects in Kurdish-dominated Zakhu in northern Iraq. He worked under the direction of then Lt. Gen. John Shalikashvili, who two years later became chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

There were three camps in Zakhu, each one housing 20,000 refugees. When Dethloff arrived, all the power lines had been cut and the water treatment system was operating on just one generator. On his recommendation, the World Health Organization replaced pumps and brought in new filters and chlorinators for the water treatment system.

Dethloff said he has fond memories from that time. He and his wife, Suki, a CH2M Hill biologist who also was working in Zakhu, were married there in a Kurdish ceremony. And, he said, as the war expands around Iraq's northern border he worries about Kurdish friends.

'I think about them quite a bit, and how they're likely to be displaced again,' he said.

Contact Kristina Brenneman at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..