Sewer leaks lead to lawsuit

City: Contractors bear responsibility; repairs double the initial cost

A lawsuit over a botched sewer line has the city of Portland and two of its contractors pointing fingers over who erred in the decision to bury two miles of substandard plastic pipe in Southwest Portland. Now in its third year of leaks, the eight-year-old sewer pipe is dying a premature death beneath Multnomah Boulevard. And the cost to replace it could be double the $4.27 million cost the city first paid to build it. The pipe was constructed in 2000 as part of an $18 million upgrade to sewers in and around the Ashcreek and Maplewood neighborhoods. The job included two other sewer lines, a sewage pumping station and walking paths for pedestrians. The Multnomah Pressure Sewer Line, as the failing pipe is called, was intended to last 50 years or longer. But a change in the job after the contract was awarded substituted PVC plastic for the steel pipe intended for the Multnomah line. Court records say the change was meant to avoid delays in acquiring steel and to save the city money. Officials said the change saved $97,000, but the job cost $210,269 more than the original contract amount. Since then, a consultant hired to review the pipe’s problems for the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services reported that the PVC pipe is leaking because it can’t withstand the pressure of sewage in the line. The consultant recommended that the whole thing be replaced. The project is currently being designed, and construction could begin this summer. In litigation filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court in January, Attorneys for the city estimated the cost of replacing the line at $7 million to $10 million. Meanwhile, damages from related sewer leaks are adding up. According to court records, the city already has paid $708,627 to clean 500,000 gallons of sewage out of Multnomah-area properties, divert sewage to a Washington County utility and make temporary repairs. The city wants the two metro-area contractors involved in the job — Ken Leahy Construction Inc., which built the pipe, and Thomas/Wright Inc., which designed it — to pay the cost of temporary fixes and cleanup and the cost of replacing the line. The city may owe another $367,000 to the Washington County utility to pay for its taking diverted sewage. But Ken Leahy Construction is standing its ground, arguing that the city approved the project’s design and that the company built the Multnomah line to the approved specs. The company is making counterclaims against manufacturers of the plastic pipes and joints, arguing that the manufacturers said their products were up to the job. Bruce Gilbert, attorney for Ken Leahy Construction, said problems with the project clearly reach beyond the company’s role. Leaks from another sewage line constructed as part of the $18 million project — notably, a 5,000-gallon spill into Fanno Creek on March 13 — indicate design problems as well, Gilbert said. “I do think that’s an indication that there’s something bigger going on here than a problem with the contractor,” Gilbert said. “It’s certainly our position that it’s not the contractor that makes design decisions.” City attorneys say some decision-making power for designs was delegated to Thomas/ Wright. Attorneys for the engineering company also deny responsibility for the Multnomah Boulevard line’s failures. Residents who have endured the sewage backups and construction disturbances say they want to know who is to blame. Back when the project was designed, those who served on a city committee to advise the construction argued against the use of PVC pipe and pushed the city to use higher quality materials. “They were trying to do it on the cheap, and now it’s going to cost in the neighborhood of $6 million to correct an indefensible mistake. I have a problem with that,” said Dorothy Gage, who lives in the pipe’s service area and served on the city committee. Gage and others pressed Commissioner Sam Adams, who now oversees the Bureau of Environmental Services, to look into the problem. They also asked Portland’s ombudsman, Michael Mills, for an investigation. Mills said getting to the root of who is at fault is made difficult by the time that has elapsed. One city worker involved in the project now is deceased and another no longer works for the city. Related documents have been destroyed. Mills said an inquiry based on existing information found no evidence of outside influence in the decision to substitute PVC plastic for the steel pipe. He said the situation appeared to be simply a case of poor judgment. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.