By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Court records, scientific reports and documents obtained by L.A. Weekly, however, show that the DWP ignored 20 years’ worth of evidence that questions the environmental and financial basis of the high-tech, water-intensive approach to dust control. Interviews with air-quality regulators, DWP employees and consultants familiar with the project reveal that the DWP and CH2M Hill were advised of specific conditions on the lake that would lead to excessive costs and duplicate efforts. Ignoring such advice led to tens of millions of dollars in change orders and a questionable reconstruction of a completed first phase.
Now the DWP is spending $500,000 on a “forensic” audit of CH2M Hill — implying the potential for legal action. Auditors will be looking at the DWP as well. The project is back out to bid. CH2M Hill, the city’s primary consultant from the start, is prohibited from rebidding as construction manager, but will remain in charge until new bids are evaluated. Observers say the project could result in years if not decades of maintenance with no end in sight. Turning back is not an option. Along the way, CH2M Hill and the DWP have tried to airbrush their failure to identify an affordable goal that doesn’t involve pipes and construction — and higher water rates. CH2M Hill spokesman John Corsi says the company should not be singled out and is qualified to complete the project. “The new DWP board has some questions, and we understand that. .?.?. We are a key member among many companies that have participated.”
Mayor Villaraigosa has kept his distance from the DWP. Controller Laura Chick, who privately briefed Villaraigosa and other mayoral candidates last spring about the ballooning costs, has taken no action, despite being personally contacted by DWP employees acting as whistleblowers and approached by at least one DWP commissioner for support.
The City Council also knew about the alarming costs but only now is asking questions. Patsaouras, himself a quick study in damage control, scoffs at the sudden interest. “Low-lying fruit,” he says. A staffer for a council member who has served on the Commerce, Energy and Natural Resource Committee, which until recently oversaw the DWP, was asked last summer about troubling signs on the lake. The staffer shrugged and said, “It’s tough to grow grass in the desert.” Councilman Tony Cardenas, at his last meeting as committee chair on January 25, downplayed CH2M Hill’s role. Asked if the project has won any awards, he blamed former DWP officials for misrepresenting cost estimates and then declared, “I want to get down to the truth.”
The dirty remains of a two-foot snowfall on New Year’s Eve are piled against the headquarters of the Great Basin Unified Air Pollution Control District in Bishop, 80 miles north of Olancha. Housed in an old motel called La Montana Plaza, Great Basin is pumped up by more than $60 million in regulatory fees paid by the DWP over the last 13 years and wields authority vested in it by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, known as CARB. Great Basin oversees air quality in Alpine, Mono and Inyo counties, a 14,000-square-mile area of about 32,000 people, according to the 2000 Census — less than three people per square mile.
Seated at his desk in a converted motel room is Ted Schade, district director for Great Basin. Schade, 48, with snow-white hair and blue eyes, is an Orange County native and a civil engineer. He was hired in 1990 to manage lakebed research and develop plans under the Clean Air Act, which regulates coarse-particle air pollution known as PM-10. He embraces the local cause célèbre of holding the DWP responsible for almost a century’s worth of water-taking.
On a sunny but cold February day, as recreational vehicles, SUVs with ski racks and trucks carrying Ski-Doos pass through town on the way to winter resorts at Mammoth Mountain, Schade is preoccupied with the prospect of a revived legal battle with the DWP — one that he thought Great Basin had won years ago.
High costs and claims of mismanagement are not his problem, Schade says, estimating that the DWP could spend between $80 million and $90 million a year, based on the cost per ton of removing dust from the air. His advice to simplify the project was ignored, he says. In December he demanded that the DWP actually expand its project by nine square miles. The DWP is appealing to CARB. Schade is braced for a fight. He says he has data to prove that dust from the additional nine miles exceeds federal PM-10 standards. The DWP says Schade’s data is “tainted.” “The Clean Air Act calls for continuing measures,” he says. “I have to enforce the law. DWP has to do what it takes.”
Schade talks in rapid sentences when he gets excited. “We didn’t tell DWP where to get the water, or how to fix the lake, but we required them to control dust,” he says. “We tried everything from sand fences to chemicals to covering the lake with old tires — there was even a proposal to pump treated sewage from Los Angeles. The methods that worked best were shallow flooding, vegetation and gravel. How DWP goes about it is their business. They stalled for years. By the time we reached an agreement they were running out of time according to the law. They had to fix the lake, quick.”