BACK STORY • Southwest pipeline posed problems for years, and it's not done yet
Bob Stevens wasn't even dressed. It was an afternoon in February 2000, and he was waiting for the mail to come and waiting out a miserable cold. Outside his home on Southwest 77th Avenue, Stevens spotted the mail truck as it rolled over the steel plates covering sewer construction on the street.
Minutes later, when the steel plates started to shake, the California native knew it was no ordinary earthquake. As he dove for cover on the floor of his home, an explosion threw the steel skyward and propelled dirt and asphalt into the air. Rocks and debris rained down. The falling rubble chipped the paint on Stevens' Chevy Blazer and cracked the windshield.
Later, he would say he thought it was a plane crash. But what happened that day was really nothing of the sort. A half a mile away, a construction crew was simply testing a pressurized sewer pipe meant to carry sewage from Stevens' neighborhood to a sewage treatment plant in Portland.
The explosion in the so-called Garden Home sewer line was the earliest sign of disaster in an $18 million project by Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services.
The job was intended to replace an aging sewer system in the Maplewood and Ashcreek neighborhoods that also served parts of Washington County. A massive pumping facility was built on Southwest 86th Avenue to replace five old ones. Its task was to push sewage, via two pressurized pipes that included the Garden Home line, through hilly Southwest Portland.
But water pushed through the line at high pressure broke multiple joints in the pipe during the ill-fated test in 2000. When they heard the explosion, workers rushed to Southwest 77th Avenue and met a crowd of mystified neighbors, including Stevens in his bathrobe.
Eight years later, people who live along the Garden Home sewer line and the crews tasked with repairing it remain in very similar poses.
The pipeline, along with a related pipe on Southwest Multnomah Boulevard, is plagued with leaks. Allegations of shoddy craftsmanship, poor engineering and lax oversight have been made. City employees involved with the job were reprimanded for traveling to Reno, Nev., on city time at the expense of the manufacturer that supplied the pipe.
And as Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services pays hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for sewage spills and millions diverting sewage around the failing pipes, officials acknowledge that the project is a major failure.
Mishaps and disasters, meanwhile, have piled up like the plot of a slapstick movie. Residents report flooded yards, basements, toilets, even bathtubs. The $9.7 million pump station on Southwest 86th Avenue has caught fire. And Stevens' driveway now is sinking, sliding and cracking.
'I took out special insurance to cover catastrophic drainage issues just in case. You just never know what to expect next,' Stevens said.
Spill flowed to Fanno Creek
In the beginning, it seemed like a good idea. In 1996, the Bureau of Environmental Services was paying $2 million a year to flow sewage downhill from the Maplewood and Ashcreek area to a sewage treatment plant operated by a Washington County utility called Clean Water Services.
Analysis by Portland's bureau showed the agency could save considerable money over time by designing a system that pushed the effluent back into Portland to its own sewage treatment plant on the Columbia River. Doing so also would prevent Portland ratepayers from having to pay Clean Water Services for any needed expansions at its plant as the population grew.
Environmental Services held a series of open houses and told residents about the plan. To offset the headache of construction, the city threw in a caveat: Once completed, the land above the Garden Home pipeline would bridge a gap in the Fanno Creek Trail, which connects the Willamette River to the Tualatin, extending the trail by roughly a mile.
After repairs, operations on the system began in 2000 and the Fanno Creek Trail was built. But a strolling citizen spotted the Garden Home pipe's first major spill in January 2002, when sewage started billowing out of the trail. The discovery prompted Environmental Services to hire an around-the-clock watchman to look after the remote site for five months, at a cost of $25,000.
Though repairs were eventually made, they were insufficient. In October 2005, the pipe ruptured, creating a 10-foot hole in the trail and scattering soil and asphalt into the surrounding wild lands. More than half a million gallons of sewage gushed into a tributary to Fanno Creek and polluted its waters.
'There would have been a geyser of water coming out of the ground where it ruptured,' said Lyle Christensen, who enforces water quality for DEQ and later visited the site. 'It just made a crater in the bike path.'
A month later, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined Portland $449,800 for the spill and 66 others. Twelve of those spills were from the Garden Home and Multnomah pipes and flowed to Fanno Creek. The resulting penalty was one of the largest ever levied for a water quality violation in Oregon.
Next week it will get even bigger. DEQ officials plan an update of the sanction, adding fines for numerous other spills, including another six from the Garden Home and Multnomah pipes since November 2005. One of those spills reached Fanno Creek just last month.
Brian Wegener, Watershed Watch coordinator for Tualatin Riverkeepers, questions why DEQ ever allowed Portland to build the pressurized system, since Portland's sewers were already over capacity anyway.
'Even without the plastic pipe leaking, it was a bad decision and they seem to be investing a lot in upholding that decision,' Wegener said.
Steel replaced by plastic
Plastic might be the most important word in Wegener's statement. Asked how Garden Home and Multnomah pipes came to be such a problem, people who live in the area have a simple answer.
Though engineering designs called for both pipes to be built with steel, they ultimately were built with plastic. PVC pipe was used on the Multnomah line, and polyethylene was used on the Garden Home line. Residents with an eye on the project were concerned about the material switch even before problems began.
'A number of people challenged the type (of pipe) they were using and whether it would be subject to failure,' said Nathalie Darcy, who served on a citizen participation organization for Washington County and monitored the project.
'We were assured throughout that this would be a very good project and they were saving money by going with this kind of pipe,' she said.
Small savings, initially, were there. All together the city saved $165,430 on the $18 million job by changing the materials on both pipes.
After the switch was made, a handful of employees at Environmental Services were disciplined for traveling to Reno at the expense of the manufacturer that supplied the polyethylene pipe used in the Garden Home line.
According to an e-mail obtained by the Portland Tribune, 'several staff from the Construction Services Division had left their job assignments and flown to Reno (in October 1999) on City time at a material supplier's expense, arranged by another Division employee.'
That group included at least two employees involved with the Garden Home pipe. The e-mail reminded employees that all out-of-town travel must be approved by managers in advance and that employees are not supposed to take tours, trips or training with outside vendors.
Bureau officials deny that the trip affected the quality of the construction on the sewer project, and say that those who were reprimanded for their relationship with the pipe manufacturer did not have the authority to purchase pipe. But former city inspector Tom Biondi, who took over the Garden Home project after the pipe began leaking, was surprised to learn about the trip. Ethics rules at Environmental Services, he said, have always been clear.
'Under the city code of ethics the inspectors can receive a gratuity of a hat. Jackets are over the limit. … Going on a trip … was beyond the code of ethics,' he said. 'They all knew it.'
Once problems on the sewer pipes emerged, repairs and other costs would quickly eat away the savings from the material changes. Since the pipes were built, the city has paid $1.2 million in fees to divert sewage to Clean Water Services during catastrophes and repairs.
Kerr Contractors ultimately was paid $69,580 to reinforce the joints along the polyethylene pipe in the Garden Home line. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will ultimately go to DEQ in fines. And it will cost millions to replace and repair failing portions of the pipes. Small sums also have flowed to attorneys, public relations efforts and homeowners whose property has been damaged.
Carpets were soaked
Deb Kelly, who lives on Southwest 77th Avenue, tops the list of the wronged.
During construction, an error was made that caused sewage to back up into Kelly's home, including her tub, shower and toilets, destroying carpets. It took a lawyer to make things right, she said.
'The (city's) project manager swore that he would make everything right, but 11 days later I was still walking on two-by-fours on my carpet. The smell of urine was so bad it made our eyes water. … I finally asked the guys in the street, 'Would you please rip up my carpet, I can't stand it,' ' she said.
A few doors down, damage to an underground drain field at the home of Mary and Oscar Olson caused flooding years later, after the Olsons moved to a retirement home. The flooding destroyed two carpets, sheetrock on the lower level of the home and wood trim.
As the years pass, many more problems have emerged. Sewage has bubbled up through lawns, flowing from one resident's house to the next, and slowly to Fanno Creek.
Kelly and her neighbors now know the phone number for Dow Columbia, a company that cleans up catastrophic messes such as sewage spills. They have learned to live with the ongoing presence of construction crews on 77th Avenue, which arrive periodically to puzzle over the hole still in the ground.
Government cars, orange cones, safety tape and sewage removal have become a way of life.
Other issues take some getting used to. The putrid odors, for example. Or the people who arrive, in times of disaster, to dump lime on the lawns, test well water for pathogens and distribute fliers about next steps.
City: Lessons were learned
Kelly worries someday the problems will be more than nuisances.
'These are, to me, our wake-up calls. They're lucky events because nobody got hurt. We're going to get a chance to fix things before something goes (dangerously) wrong,' she said.
Dean Marriott, director of environmental services, said the bureau is working toward a permanent fix.
The city anticipates spending between $7 million and $11 million to completely replace the Multnomah pipe and repair the Garden Home line. The original combined cost of both projects was $5.6 million. Portland also has filed a lawsuit against Ken Leahy Construction, which built the Multnomah pipe, and Thomas/Wright, a consulting firm that designed it. Construction on both lines begins again this summer.
Marriott, who has been director of environmental services since 1994, said bureau officials are confident the Garden Home line still can be repaired and saved at a lower cost than replacing it.
'This is one of those projects that we all clearly wish had gone more smoothly,' he said.
He counted, among lessons learned, reinforcing rules that govern employee contact with suppliers, but Marriott denies any impropriety on the part of his staff. Officials who have wrestled with what went wrong simply see a bit of a boondoggle: a pattern of poor craftsmanship, designs compromised by the material changes and spotty oversight. Marriott said he has little interest in finding a scapegoat and is more concerned with fixing problems.
But residents offer a different view and still want answers as to why 'the City That Works' has spent so much time working in their neighborhood.
'From a public policy point of view, obviously this project at best has turned into a boondoggle of some sort,' said Darcy, the woman involved with the county citizen participation organization. 'If I were an elected official, I would like to know what was the decision process that caused this 10 years ago, and can we identify what were the failures of the process? And can we prevent it from happening again?'
E-mail from BES supervisor Paul Gribbon to employees Oct. 25, 1999:
'As some of you already know, it recently came to my attention that several staff from the Construction Services Division had left their job assignments and flown to Reno last week on City time at a material supplier's expense, arranged by another Division employee. …
Please note that per City policy all out-of-town travel must be approved by the Group Manager in advance. …
It is also expected that employees will notify their supervisor when they do not intend to be at work for whatever reason.'
Estimated damages to one Portland home (from tort claim to city of Portland for damage to Deb Kelly's home, Aug. 17, 1999):
$979.96 - Sewage cleanup
$4,981.97 - Repair of floor, rug, Sheetrock
$2,000.00 - Homeowner's time spent for cleanup, coordinating contractors and sick time taken from work
$7,961.93 - Total