Tampa Bay Water, reservoir engineer reach settlement

Source: Tampa Bay Online, February 21, 2011

The region’s water supplier settled today with the general contractor of its faulty reservoir but will continue to pursue a lawsuit against the engineering company that designed the 15-billion gallon structure.

The settlement approved by Tampa Bay Water’s board calls for contractor Barnard Construction and subcontractor McDonald Construction Corp. to pay $750,000 before the case goes to trial. The company also could be liable for up to $5 million, depending on the outcome of the case.

Tampa Bay Water will continue its case against HDR Engineering, the company that designed the massive, above-ground reservoir in southeastern Hillsborough County.

The regional utility is suing to recover some of the $125 million estimated cost to fix cracks in the soil cement covering over the sides and bottom of the reservoir. The reservoir cost $140 million to build.

Though the reservoir is not leaking, the cracks could allow erosion of the sides and bottom that the soil cement is designed to prevent and eventually weaken the reservoir.

An attorney for the regional utility said today that while HDR was working for Tampa Bay Water to determine why the reservoir was cracking, an internal company memo shows there were worries some tests would make the firm look bad to the public and other clients.

A March 3, 2008 internal memo outlined potential pitfalls of conducting tests focusing on what was becoming a leading theory of why fissures were opening in the soil cement covering portions of the reservoir’s sides and bottom.

At the time, Tampa Bay Water was paying HDR to investigate why cracks were appearing in parts of the reservoir.

“Clearly, HDR was concerned and preoccupied with their self interest,” said Richard Harrison, Tampa Bay Water’s counsel.

The memo concerned tests to determine whether water pressure in the reservoir’s earth banks caused the cracks as the reservoir was drained to provide drinking water for the region.

The tests involved digging trenches to relieve the water pressure.

One problem highlighted in the memo said if tests showed the theory was correct, it could be argued engineers should have foreseen the problem when designing the reservoir eight years earlier.

Another part said it could be an admission of culpability if the firm paid in full for the tests while not paying for others and that the public would learn of the testing.

“If it does become public knowledge, it is unlikely that our client will give us any cover with respect to the basis for its implementation,” the memo said.

“If we decide to proceed with a testing program we better be ready to face the music – it may start sooner rather than later,” the memo that came to light during trial preparation says.

However, the memo ends with the recommendation to run the tests suggested by a consultant HDR hired.

HDR officials did not respond to calls.

The company performed the tests in May 2008 but the results were not conclusive on the cause of the problems.

Tampa Bay Water filed suit in December 2008 against HDR, Barnard, McDonald CDG, the company that performed construction management.

The utility settled with CDG in October for $6 million.

Barnard will still be a defendant in the trial and defend its construction work, Harrison said.

Monday’s agreement frees Tampa Bay Water from trying to prove Barnard bears most of the fault for the reservoir cracks, he said.

“We’re not going to battle with Barnard,” Harrison said. “If they are responsible at all, they’re not responsible for much.”

The utility will have a better idea of the cost to fix the reservoir when bids come in next month.

The repair could eliminate the reservoir from the region’s water supply for possibly two years. Water from rivers fills the reservoir during the rainy season and the utility taps the supply during the dry season.

Tampa Bay Water will have to rely more heavily on well fields and its desalination plant while the reservoir is being fixed.

Tampa Bay Water provides wholesale water to public utilities in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties, and Tampa, St. Petersburg and New Port Richey.

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