31 August 2010

County Entering Mediation over Wastewater Treatment Plant

Grand Traverse County is entering mediation over a dispute among firms responsible for designing and building a problematic wastewater treatment plant.

Evaluating the plant's effectiveness for the second time was Prein & Newho of Grand Rapids. After another extensive overview of the county's $7.8 million facility, their final report to the Grand Traverse Board of Public Works was delivered with no change to the first diagnosis.

Prein & Newho reconfirmed that former county attorney Michael Houlihan and the local septage treatment plant designer, Gourdie-Fraser Inc., failed to apply professional care when they overestimated the projected septage volume of the facility.

The overall issue at hand is: the plant takes in about half the septic tank waste volume that producers projected, and the operational costs greatly exceed what was forecasted.

“I think it’s becoming increasingly obvious that there was a lack of professional standards followed,” said a Township Supervisor. “I’m hopeful that we can mediate a fair settlement, and I believe we should be able to.”

The facility experienced a partial shut-down a month after opening in 2005. To add to the problems, the plant has estimated to lose roughly $400,000 this year and about $600,000 in 2011.

Prein & Newhof, along with Grand Traverse county officials met with the wastewater treatment plants designer, Gourdie-Fraser Inc. and The Christman Co., the two organizations that engineered and constructed the facility. The meetings come coupled with mediation to resolve the contract disputes originating from the process.

During the meetings, the responsible designers provided new information to the county, and Prein & Newhof revised its report as result, however not its conclusion.

“We still feel it is grossly inaccurate,” President of Gourdie-Fraser, Joe Elliot said of the new report. “We think they are trying to work backwards and build a foundation for a predetermined solution.”

In addition to the disputes, Grand Traverse County and Gourdie-Fraser/Christman have conflicting views of when the facility was complete under the contract as well as if the plant meets specific capacity requirements.

Elliot noted Gourdie-Fraser Inc. would prefer to avoid consulting with a Nashville mediation lawyer and has yet rule out the possibility of a cash settlement.

“Mediation will burn more money and more legal fees, and we would like to bring it to a resolution without doing that,” Elliot said. “A cash settlement is something we will talk about in the next bit, but right now I would say probably not.”

Prein & Newhof questioned certain decisions made by the designer of wastewater treatment plants in several other areas of the facility. However Elliot said the design process involved five local township supervisors who were responsible for oversight, in addition to Grand Traverse county officials and an outside engineer.

“There was a good design process, and it came up with fairly good conclusions,” Elliot commented. “In hindsight, they probably aren’t perfect, but there always are things you can do better when you look back.”

County officials advocate that the preparation, design and construction of the plant were done correctly and the facility’s problems are due to several of compounding issues, such as the economy. The Supervisor for Garfield County claimed that it is time to drop that stance.

“That reasoning is getting pretty thin,” he said. “The collapse established the thing as a failure, and its only gone downhill from there.”

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