Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Kelly Butte tank teaches us a lesson about big consultants

On March 17, 2010, Portland's City Council gave the go ahead to the Portland Water Bureau to start the uber-expensive and unnecessary new water tank at Kelly Butte. The contract is going to Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH). MWH has secured most of the largest PWB contract awards over the last decade, MWH employees were involved in writing the LT2 Rule that Portland is now citing as the reason they must build this new tank at Kelly Butte, and reportedly, it was MWH that originally conceived of this idea to build a tank we don't need at Kelly Butte almost a decade ago. One might also note, MWH constructed the famously faulty buried tanks in Seattle which have contaminated that city's water supply.

There were two companies on the official “short list” to get the Kelly Butte contract; one was MWH and the other was a company called AECOM. AECOM is another mammoth global engineering firm. This year, Friends of the Reservoirs and I have found CH2MHill and MWH bidding on contracts, such as the Powell Butte contract, under other names. For instance, with the Powell Butte project we saw two bids come in: one from CH2MHill and one from Tetra Tech. The Tetra Tech bid turned out to be a consortium of multiple players, including MWH and Black & Veatch. AECOM has a history of working with CH2MHill on lucrative contracts. (Note the consortium called “Transcend” that was developed this time last year for a large rail project in the UK).

Also note on the Kelly Butte meeting sign in sheet, CH2MHill listed itself as a “SUB” or subcontractor for this project and AECOM listed itself as a “PRIME” or the prime contractor for this project. Which means AECOM was planning on submitting its bid under its own name, and CH2MHill is/was planning on working under some other company on this project.

As citizens become more alarmed at the influence particular firms have over large projects in Portland, we should expect to see those firms occasionally mask their participation in large contracts so as to lesson appearances of impropriety. Something to be aware of as more contracts move forward. The top name does not necessarily tell you who the real players are behind the contract. The only way to know which companies are truly benefiting from these large contract awards is to request to see every bid -- a costly prospect given the Portland Water Bureau's refusal to recognize fee waivers for community organizations and their insistence on charging for every form of access to these bids.