By ED OCHS
To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of MWH’s exit from the Los Osos sewer project have been greatly exaggerated.
Despite an earlier public statement by a San Luis Obispo County Public Works project manager John Waddell indicating that MWH Americas Inc. was no longer participating in the Los Osos sewer project, Waddell wrote in an e-mail one week later that MWH is still on the shortlist for construction of the treatment plant.
In addition, according to County Public Works director Paavo Ogren, MWH has not been excluded from bidding on construction of the collection system or on design and construction of the treatment facility.
On March 15, answering questions before the Board of Supervisors and the public, and prompted by Supervisor Bruce Gibson, Waddell revealed that MWH Americas had declined to bid because of controversy swirling around the Broomfield, Col.-based company’s history in Los Osos. Waddell did not explain that MWH declined to bid on only one small facet of the project, design services for the collection system.
Waddell said then that MWH’s desire not to propose was a “business decision… Ultimately, in the last few days, actually before the proposals were due, two firms said they had decided not to propose. They did cite the overall controversy in Los Osos as one of the reasons.”
The second firm that opted not to propose is believed to be Lake Forrest, California-based ARB Inc., leaving MWH and Sacramento-based Sundt Construction as the two lone competitors for the same gravity-only system.
The Rock learned that MWH was very much in, not out, from a March 22 email to a Los Osos resident seeking further clarification about MWH’s status, in which Waddell wrote that MWH remains active in the project:
“The County requested proposals for engineering design (professional consulting) services for the collection system. MWH did not submit a proposal, so they will not be completing the design/redesign of the collection system. After the design is completed, the collection system construction contracts will be put out for low bid and contracts awarded to the lowest responsible bidders.
“The pre-qualified short-list for the treatment facility under a design-build process includes MWH, CDM, and Auburn Construction.”
Many in Los Osos, including The Rock, took Waddell’s unqualified remarks as signaling MWH’s complete withdrawal from the Los Osos project, believing that the “overall controversy” wasn’t limited to one portion of the project, but the whole project itself — and could not be separated or sectioned off. Waddell’s comment seemed to leave very little if any room for any other interpretation.
In the past two weeks, however, Los Osos citizens reported that MWH was still deeply involved in the project, and that MWH’s decision not to bid on collection system design was a minor concession and largely symbolic. And while its withdrawal was leaked to the public in a confusing manner, the main reason given for MWH bowing out of collection design was clear: controversy in Los Osos. Ogren’s response to one resident seeking further clarification was cordial but evasive, in that it lacked a definitive answer to the question of MWH’s overall status, which led to additional speculation and further efforts to clarify the facts amid a possible smokescreen.
The March 22 e-mail from Waddell to a Los Osos resident only came to The Rock’s attention on April 5.
Commented one Los Osos MWH critic about MWH’s continued involvement in the project, despite the still-ongoing, publicly-acknowledged controversy that caused them to abandon bidding on collection design:
“MWH is still in for the part of the project where they stand to make even more money with less controversy about their potential violations. They already designed the collection system, so if they back out of that, then they have more of an argument that they should be allowed to bid on treatment.
“It still doesn’t take away from the fact that the County’s project review panel was loaded with their former business partners — (John) Wallace and (Lou) Carella (of Carollo Engineering) – and that should toss their bid right out the window… They also all worked together on Lopez Dam project — all of them, Paavo Ogren, MWH, Wallace and Carella — one happy family on the taxpayers extended payroll.”
Tracking MWH’s activities in Los Osos may now have become even more difficult. Wrote another Los Osos MWH watcher:
“MWH has already designed the project (collection system). All they have to do is sell the design to a third party and the big (all) money gets kicked back to MWH for design and construction.”
Public relations has never been one of the County’s strong suits, and the Public Works Department has been a particular source of public criticism and embarrassment, having wasted millions of Los Osos taxpayer dollars on a project that had to be relocated and conditioned, then delayed by the Coastal Commission to further ensure compliance with key conditions. In April 2009 the County dropped any and all alternatives from the final project competition, costing the taxpayers millions by limiting the choice to only the most expensive and least environmentally friendly technology. Ogren later confirmed that gravity collection was always the County’s technology of choice.
Though Ogren has vigorously denied conflict of interest allegations regarding his relationship with MWH, he has been less forthcoming about the extent of MWH’s full involvement with the Los Osos project, preferring not to go on record responding to questions about MWH, which is currently under scrutiny for its business practices in Cape Coral, Florida, and now in Morro Bay, where it has become a serious issue.
As Los Osos project manager, Waddell has been designated by Ogren with the primary responsibility of delivering updates on the project to the Board of Supervisors, and has issued confusing statements and explanations in the past. He did not clarify his public comments of March 15 until asked directly one week later by a Los Osos resident via e-mail.
It is unclear at this time why “the Los Osos controversy” has only affected MWH’s participation in the bidding process for collection design, but not for collection construction or treatment design-build; apparently the controversy is non-transferable. MWH has a lengthy and checkered history in Los Osos, and Ogren is part of that history. It is also unclear why Waddell and Ogren do not appear to be on the same page with the same information; Waddell, the project manager, not knowing or revealing that MWH was still up for collection construction and treatment design-build.
MWH apparently made no effort to ask the County to clarify MWH’s status for the media and public, whose concerns have only been heightened as a result of the confusion, as it turns out, understandably. MWH has not issued any statement or press release on its controversial decision not to bid on collection design and, as Waddell did for them, blame the ongoing controversy in Los Osos for it, now a national controversy that both the County and MWH have done more than their share to fuel.