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Memo shows reservoir engineer feared bad publicity for cracks

The engineering company that designed Tampa Bay Water's reservoir feared that finding the true cause of cracks in the walls would lead people to blame it for the flaws, leading to bad publicity and a loss of clients, according to documents released Monday.

A March 2008 memo from an HDR Engineering executive warned that the Nebraska-based company "better be ready to face the music."

"HDR is the engineer of record, and we will not be able to escape the slings and arrows that likely will come our way … " company vice president John Ranon wrote to a corporate attorney. "This may have unfavorable consequences not only from a financial standpoint but also with respect to our standing with this and other clients."

Tampa Bay Water officials, who are suing HDR, characterized the memo as a smoking-gun document showing that the company tried to duck the blame for problems with the 15-billion-gallon reservoir in rural Hillsborough County.

HDR's trial attorney, Wayne Mason, said that's not true.

"Absolutely no one was running from trying to find the truth," he said.

The cracks in the reservoir walls were first discovered shortly after it was put into use in 2005. While the cracks do not appear to pose a danger, the cost of fixing them — which is almost as much as what it cost to build the $146 million project — is likely to lead to an increase in water rates for residents in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The HDR memo about the cracks was disclosed Monday after Tampa Bay Water reached an unusual settlement with the company that built the reservoir, Barnard Construction Co.

As part of the settlement, Barnard will remain a part of the lawsuit and be available to rebut any attempt by HDR to blame cracks in the reservoir on anything other than the design, said utility attorney Richard Harrison.

Normally when two sides in a lawsuit settle, one side pays the other some money to be released from the case. But this settlement — which the regional utility's board approved Monday after a closed-door session with its attorney — calls for Montana-based Barnard to pay Tampa Bay Water no less than $750,000 and no more than $5 million in damages, depending on what a jury finds when the case goes to trial in July.

The reason for the unusual arrangement, Harrison said, is simple: Barnard Construction agrees with the utility that "the real culprit here is HDR, because the cracking was caused by their bad design."

Mason said a jury would see through Tampa Bay Water's strategy.

"Tampa Bay Water's attempt to cut deals and team up with culpable parties against HDR is not becoming of this public body," he said.

The utility opened the C.W. Bill Young Regional Reservoir six years ago as a place to store water skimmed from the Alafia River, Hillsborough River and Tampa Bypass Canal. The reservoir, named for the longtime congressman from Pinellas County, is the largest in Florida, covering about 1,100 acres.

Cracks were first discovered in its earthen embankment walls in December 2006. Some cracks were up to 400 feet long and up to 15 1/2 inches deep. Inspectors said the cracks did not threaten the stability of the embankment, which is as wide as a football field at its base and averages about 50 feet high.

Workers patched the cracks, but the fix didn't last. Tampa Bay Water hired HDR to figure out what was wrong with the reservoir the company had designed.

However, Harrison contended that documents uncovered recently as a result of the lawsuit show HDR was spending as much time covering its own tracks as it was trying to find the cause of the cracks.

In the March 2008 memo, Ranon wrote to HDR's corporate attorney that one possible solution to the cracking would be installing drains inside the embankment to get rid of water collecting there. However, he wrote, if that worked "it could be problematic for HDR because it could be argued" that the design "could have (or should have) been developed eight years ago."

Tampa Bay Water filed the lawsuit in federal court in December 2008 against HDR, the reservoir's design engineer; Barnard Construction, the contractor; and CDG, which provided construction management. The board settled with CDG last fall.

A repair designed to permanently fix the cracks is slated to begin next year. One early cost estimate puts it near $125 million. Utility executives have said they likely will have to raise water rates to pay for the fix.

Memo shows reservoir engineer feared bad publicity for cracks 02/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 12:09am]
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