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Months after ribbon-cutting, Seattle Public Utilities facility still not open

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)

Eight months after a ribbon-cutting ceremony, Seattle Public Utilities’ new, state-of-the-art South Transfer Station remains closed.

The structure was built to replace the existing recycling and disposal facility in Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, which has become obsolete since its construction in 1965.

Ground was broken on the new facility in November 2010, but two key problems prevented it from opening as planned in June 2012.

In June 2011, the West Seattle Herald posted photos that showed the building’s steel structure had been erected. Three months later, in September, The Herald posted a photo that showed the steel had been taken back down.

That’s problem number one.

Andy Ryan, a spokesperson for Settle Public Utilities, said that the structure was taken back down in order to apply a more durable paint.

“We recognized that opportunity in the process to do it better,” Ryan said when asked by KIRO Radio why the proper paint wasn’t chosen to begin with.

Ryan said the process of dismantling the metal, sending it out to be repainted and putting it back up cost $2.7 million; that cost was split 50/50 between the contractor, Mortenson Construction, and the city. The net savings in long-term maintenance costs for SPU is estimated at $1.3 million.

The second problem became apparent only after SPU held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new building in May 2012.
It was discovered that an area of the building designed for trucks to come in and out was not built with sufficient clearance. Once a sprinkler system was installed, it became apparent that the ceiling was too low.

“When we started running trucks through here, it became really apparent that while we had adequate clearance when things went right, things can go wrong,” said Jeff Neuner, the transfer station business area manager.

“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.”

When asked if the building would have been completed by June 2012 had it not been for the clearance issue, Neuner said it would have.

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

KIRO Radio also spoke with Seattle Public Utilities in order to clear up several discrepancies in their statements about the South Transfer Station.

When SPU reported on the start of construction, they wrote on their website that the project had a price tag of $50 million. SPU officials were quoted in several articles restating that figure, although the actual cost is much greater.

“The government-approved amount that we’re going to spend here is about $75 million,” Ryan said. “If we weren’t, we certainly should in all of our materials have been reporting the actual, total complete cost of the facility.”

Ryan called it an “error,” and explained that SPU posted the figure paid to the contractor alone, not the cost of property acquisition, site cleanup, environmental studies and other related expenses. As of Monday, the SPU website was changed to reflect the total cost.

Another conflicting piece of information was the actual deadline for the project. While SPU repeatedly stated in print and during interviews that the project would be done in June 2012, Ryan said the deadline had always been December 2012, but that the contractor was “optimistic” it would be done sooner.

SPU said it is going through a final “check list,” and anticipates the facility will be open sometime in the first quarter of this year. It will come in slightly over budget, at approximately $75,512,000, due to upgrades they’ve asked the contractor to complete.

Ryan said SPU does not anticipate having another ribbon-cutting ceremony.

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