Massive North Bay Wildfire Debris Removal Project Hits Roadblock

Army Corps' contractors clear a homesite near Mark West Springs Road in Santa Rosa.

Army Corps' contractors clear a home site near Mark West Springs Road in Santa Rosa. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

The task of hauling away the hazardous mess left behind by October’s deadly North Bay wildfires has stalled due to a contract challenge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is facing.

Right after the fires, the Army Corps got the project underway through an expedited contracting process that’s already set up in advance of a natural disaster. Two initial task orders of $239 million each were awarded to Burlingame-based ECC (Environmental Chemical Corporation) and AshBritt Environmental. These two companies then hired subcontractors to start going from lot to lot, clearing waste and taking it to the dump.

So far, the Army Corps reports its contractors are almost halfway through the massive cleanup project, clearing about 2,400 sites and 850,000 tons of waste.

But the money in those initial contracts started drying up last month. ECC already finished its initial work, and the Army Corps said AshBritt has about a week of work left.

On Dec. 29, 2017, the Army Corps awarded two new contracts, totaling $635 million, to ECC and Minnesota-based CERES Environmental Services to finish the project by the end of next month.

Now AshBritt, which lost out on this second round of cleanup contracts, has filed what’s called a “bid protest” with the United States Government Accountability Office. The protest has launched a bureaucratic review that is stalling further debris removal.

The delay is frustrating to Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore and to local residents.

“Every day that we stop in terms of debris removal puts people back — in their minds, in their hearts and in their business — on being able to get to the point where they can even consider rebuild,” Gore said.

This home site is clean aside from two burned cars that need to be hauled away.
This home site is clean aside from two burned cars that need to be hauled away.

AshBritt would not give any specifics about the bid protest it filed with the GAO earlier this week.

“AshBritt believes the protest it filed related to a contract procurement issue is in the long-term best interest of the recovery efforts and the community,” a spokesperson wrote in an email.

Filing a bid protest gives disappointed bidders a way to challenge how a contract was solicited or awarded, said Ralph White, managing associate general counsel for procurement law at the GAO. In its filings, AshBritt must make the case that the Army Corps somehow violated federal procurement law or regulation in awarding cleanup contracts to ECC and CERES.

“They have submitted their pleadings and it does not look to be frivolous,” White said. “And if it were frivolous, if it were late, if they weren’t in line for award — any of the things that would cause us to dismiss a protest and not hear it — that’s what we would do. But … I don’t know of any reason why it gets tossed out.”

White said the GAO has 100 days to review AshBritt’s filing and make a decision.

But White pointed out that Northern California residents may not have to wait on the GAO’s decision to see cleanup work resume. Agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, have the ability to override a bid protest, White said, “if the agency has a situation that is urgent or can be deemed in the best interest of the United States.”

Nancy Allen, spokeswoman for the Army Corps, said the decision to try and override a bid protest lies up the chain with the Department of the Army. Allen said the Army Corps is responding to the protest and working to get debris removal underway as soon as possible.

Sonoma Supervisor Gore said he understands that the Army Corps needs to follow proper contracting procedures, but that this cleanup process is very emotional for fire survivors. Any delay impacts thousands of displaced residents in Northern California whose recovery remains on hold.

“They’re busier than they’ve ever been in their lives because this is busy work, right?” Gore said. “Of learning your insurance policies and doing everything else. And they’re under the gun to make these decisions very quickly. And so that is what kills me, when the insensitivity of a government contracting basis gets in the way of progress.”

Massive North Bay Wildfire Debris Removal Project Hits Roadblock 12 January,2018Sukey Lewis

Author

Sukey Lewis

Sukey Lewis is a journalist and radio producer with KQED News reporting on criminal justice. In addition to her work at KQED, Sukey has freelanced for Latino U.S.A., Snap Judgment and the Center For Investigative Reporting’s radio show Reveal.

Sukey received a master’s degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.

You can email Sukey at slewis@kqed.org or find her on Twitter at @SukeyLewis.

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