Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Roberto Aguayo, Jonathan Drouin, Tim Beckham are coming for revenge


    Forget the Three Tenors.

    Make it the Three Terrors.

    The 2017 Unfulfilled Expectations Tour is about to hit Tampa Bay.

    From left, former Bucs kicker Roberto Aguayo, ex-Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin and former Rays infielder Tim Beckham. [LOREN ELLIOTT | Times; DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times; Getty Images]
  2. Carlton: A moment of sanity when citizens finally said no


    If you were looking for some small sign of sanity in the world, here's one courtesy of the people of Tampa and Hillsborough County.

    The Confederate memorial statue outside the old Hillsborough courthouse is now boxed up in plywood to prevent vandalism. Private donors have ponied up money to have the statue relocated to a cemetery. [JIM DAMASKE  |  Times]
  3. Review: Jason Aldean fires up a country-dude party at Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre


    Country music has a dude problem.

    I’m not talking about the proliferation of mindless bro country over the past half-decade, nor am I referring to the fact that most of Nashville’s best music these days comes not from said bros, from female singers and songwriters.

    Jason Aldean performed at the MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre in Tampa on Aug. 18, 2018.
  4. President Trump offers prayers for Kissimmee police


    President Donald Trump reacted to the police shooting in Kissimmee: