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Is Seattle Public Utilities being too ‘picky’ about the city’s new dump?

Seattle Public Utilities' new South Transfer Station was built to replace the existing recycling and disposal facility in the South Park neighborhood, which has become obsolete since its construction in 1965. (Photo courtesy Mortenson Construction)

Disagreements between Seattle Public Utilities and the contractor building a new, multi-million dollar city dump have cost ratepayers more than a million dollars and delayed the opening of the facility for more than seven months, KIRO Radio has learned.

While the contractor feels they designed and built a state-of-the-art facility that should have opened on schedule and come in on budget, it remains closed because SPU admits to being a “picky customer.”

Last week, KIRO Radio highlighted two main issues during construction of the $75 million South Transfer Station, which was scheduled to open in June 2012. A third came to light only after several sources who work for the utility came forward.

The first problem occurred in June 2011 when the steel structure of the building, a portion of which had already been erected, was taken down and repainted. It was put back up three months later. SPU spokesperson Andy Ryan said the utility thought a more durable paint should have been used in order to cut down on long-term maintenance costs.

“We had a forcible discussion with our contractor throughout the project, before and during the taking down of the structure, in which we expressed our opinion that a better paint should have been put on there,” Ryan said.

But the contractor tells KIRO Radio the original paint was up to specification and did not need to be changed.

“In our opinion, what we were trying to give them was a state of the art facility,” said Mortenson Construction Vice President Jim Yowan. “We gave them a high performance paint. They decided they wanted something that was even better than what we gave them.”

In the end, Ryan said the city and the contractor came to a compromise in order to avoid a lawsuit. They agreed to split the cost of the new paint, which was $2.7 million.

“I don’t think anyone would debate that the dollars in question were pretty significant,” Yowan said of the cost associated with changing the paint.

SPU feels differently.

“In the context of the cost of this [project] and the impact to ratepayers, it’s not significant,” Ryan said.

The utility and contractor also disagree about a clearance issue that continues to keep the facility closed.

The problem was discovered before SPU held a ribbon cutting ceremony for the new facility in May 2012.

According to SPU, a tunnel area of the building designed for trucks to come in and out was not built with sufficient clearance, which the utility said became apparent once a sprinkler system was installed.

“These sprinklers are something that just didn’t show up on the drawing boards,” Ryan said. “It showed up as soon as our operations people walked through and looked at them.”

SPU was concerned that if a truck had debris sticking out of the top, the sprinkler system might be torn down. The utility asked the contractor to move the sprinklers to the side of the tunnel, which is being done right now.

While they agreed to make the change, Mortenson Construction feels as if the area had sufficient clearance for trucks even with the sprinklers where they were.

“The ceiling height was adequate for a truck to go through there,” Yowan said. “If something was haphazardly sticking out of a trash hauler that could be one feet or ten feet. To plan for the eventuality of that is highly inefficient and very costly.”

The cost to alter the sprinkler system to allow for better clearance is estimated at $300,000. The city will pay for one-third of that change, according to Ryan.

Ryan said the cost is a “drop in the bucket,” compared to what the utility would be faced with if a truck brought the sprinkler system down.

“Do the math,” he said.

Both sides agree that the building would have been completed as planned by June 2012 had it not been for the clearance issue, but unlike the contractor, Ryan said the utility is in no hurry to get the project finished.

“Honestly, this facility isn’t needed online for quite some time,” he said. “We have another facility that’s operating right now. It’s old and as you have seen it is dirty and falling apart but it’s still good for a while.”

A third disagreement between SPU and the contractor has to do with asphalt outside the building that was put down, then torn up and replaced.

While the asphalt was up to Seattle Department of Transportation specifications, Mortenson said SPU wanted something else.

“SPU realized that they would rather have a pavement that would be denser, more what you’d see on a road,” Yowan said. “We scraped off the top layer and put a new layer down.”

SPU said the cost of the replacement and who will cover it is still being sorted out between the two parties.

It is still unclear when the facility will open, although SPU has estimated it will be sometime in the first quarter of the year, nearly a year after a premature ribbon cutting ceremony. The most current data available shows that the project is over budget, at approximately $75,512,000. The government-approved figure was roughly $74,116,000.

In the end, despite their disagreements, both the utility and the contractor can agree that ratepayers will be getting one really nice dump.

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