DECATUR — City leaders are in talks over whether taxpayers will pay for a multimillion-dollar mistake in the $91 million Lake Decatur dredging project, documents obtained by the Herald & Review show.
The 3,831 pages of correspondence, dating to May 2013 and acquired through the state Freedom of Information Act, reveal a back and forth between officials about why the massive basin designated to hold lake sediment filled up faster than expected. The city’s contractor, Great Lakes Dredge & Dock Co., spent months and millions of dollars on earthwork this year to ensure it could finish the project, which began five years ago this fall.
"Unfortunately this happened, and obviously it's not something that we as a city are happy about, nor are any of the (contractors)," interim City Manager Billy Tyus said this month. "However, the necessary steps are being taken to address the issue."
The dredging is one of the largest municipal projects in Decatur history, removing debris and dirt from the floor of the man-made lake to increase depth by up to 6 feet in some places and adding up to 30 percent more water capacity. The 3,093-acre waterway, constructed from 1920 to 1923 on the Sangamon River, is the primary source of drinking water for Decatur and Mount Zion and supports key industries.
But documents show that the city’s engineering firm, Chastain and Associates, was warned as far back as 2013 that the plans might not include enough storage for the sediment. Yet no one measured how much space the material was taking up until the problem was detected in August 2017, according to the documents.
The city in April approved a $2.7 million change order for Great Lakes to address the issue. The company also said in February that it had racked up another $2.2 million from lost work time and other expenses, according to the files.
Tyus said the city’s position is that taxpayers shouldn’t have to cover the cost of the mistake. Great Lakes and Chastain each found fault with one another, according to the city documents, which include emails, memos and minutes from previous meetings.
Engineers with Chastain, a Decatur company which often consults on local public projects, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Great Lakes declined requests for an interview, but Vice President Bill Hanson issued a statement.
"This has been a unique and ambitious project that we have worked on for the city of Decatur for the last four years and are close to wrapping up," Hanson said. "The city has done a terrific job managing the project."
The project was under budget in its early years, according to the documents, so the unanticipated $2.7 million did not add to the overall $89 million cost of the Great Lakes contract.
In summer 2017, crews were ahead of schedule, and city leaders said work might be wrapped up a full year early. But fixing the storage issue this year caused months of delay. Public Works Director Matt Newell said recently that the project might not be completed until 2019, its original scheduled ending date.
"We've got all our opinions on what went wrong," said Newell, who was not involved in a detailed way with the dredging project until late last year. "Until the job is done and we see where it ends up, it's still kind of a discussion."
Asked if the problem would've still happened if all parties had followed best practices, Tyus told the Herald & Review: "It's difficult to say at this point. We have our own opinions and we have a direction that we're pursuing, but it's not something I'm prepared to say at this point."
Said Mayor Julie Moore Wolfe: "The really important factor is we solved the problem, we solved the water supply shortage. What we don't want to lose in all of this is what a huge win this is for our community as a whole."
Protecting a vital resource
The city hired Chastain & Associates to oversee the project in October 2013 and agreed to pay the firm $897,900. The documents show that engineers for Chastain answered questions posed by prospective bidders for the work in October and November 2013.
The FOIA documents show that one request, which does not show the contractor that submitted questions, directly addressed the storage issue.
"The Oakley Sediment Basin appears not to have enough capacity to dredge the 10.7 million cubic yards of the lake," the dredger wrote. "Can the owner confirm that there is enough fill capacity in the (basin) to place all dredged material required?" Chastain confirmed there would be enough space.
The Decatur City Council voted in February 2014 to hire Great Lakes for the project. That fall, crews began the dredging, essentially vacuuming millions of gallons of sediment out of the lake floor. The material is pumped through miles of pipes running along the lake bottom and stored at the Oakley site — a fenced, swampy area off Angle Crossing Road.
The basin was full of sediment from previous, smaller-scale dredging efforts. Crews from subcontractor Terra Contracting Services spent more than two years in the early part of the project raising the berms, or barriers, around the site to increase its capacity.
The latest project called for removing 10.7 million cubic yards of material from the lake. One cubic yard equals about 200 gallons of material.
In August 2017, Great Lakes told city officials and Chastain engineers that 8 million cubic yards of material had been removed from the bottom of the lake. Crews had 2.7 million cubic yards left to dredge.
Around the same time, the company conducted the first survey of Oakley sediment basin’s capacity and found that there was room for less than 1 million cubic yards of material.
According to the documents, both firms were involved in some way with overseeing the basin. Contract terms with Great Lakes said the dredging company would be responsible for maintenance. Chastain was to prepare the plans to rehabilitate the site at the start of the project, and also to conduct monthly surveys of the lake bottom to determine whether crews were on track to remove the required amount of sediment.
The records obtained in the FOIA request show disagreement between the two parties over why the sediment basin filled up faster than expected and why it could not hold the 10.7 million cubic yards Chastain promised.
Throughout the project, according to Newell, Great Lakes had shown an eagerness to work as quickly as possible, presumably to finish early so the company could move its dredging equipment for a new project in time for the 2019 work season. "They were blowing and going," Newell said. "Sucking the stuff up and dumping it in as fast as they can.” But that also means that sediment doesn’t have time to settle properly in the basin.
A Sept. 7, 2017, letter from Great Lakes Project Sponsor Andrew Funke, read, "We understand from our meetings ... and various emails and discussions to date that the Oakley Sediment Basin was designed to only contain the contracted dredging quantity with the assumption that the disposed material would fill the area ... without allowing for ... the tolerances for over-digging during dredging process to meet the required (lake bottom) elevations."
A week later, a letter dated Sept. 13, 2017, from Chastain Project Manager Gregg Foltz to the city argued the basin was designed to hold the amount of sediment that Great Lakes reported it had so far put there. Foltz suggested that if Great Lakes' estimates showed the basin would be reach capacity with 9.2 million cubic yards of dredge material, the discrepancy may derive from the company's dredging methods.
The quick work of Great Lakes was not the single issue that led to the capacity problems, Newell said, but the project had a lot of moving parts and that may have complicated the issue.
To assess the matter, city officials ordered a third-party engineering firm to review what went wrong. Quincy-based Klingner Associates found no one involved in the project had collected data on how much material was going into the Oakley Basin, the make-up of the sediment being pumped out by dredgers or how much water has successfully trickled back into the lake, an important component of the project.
Water under the bridge?
In the last week of November, Great Lakes shut down dredging for the project due to capacity concerns at the Oakley Basin. Crews did not restart dredging until June, according to Newell, roughly three months later than the typical early spring start date from years past.
Throughout the winter and spring months, documents show, city officials and Chastain engineers raced to make construction permit changes with state officials that approved a 4-foot height increase around the walls of the basin.
In April, Newell and public works officials began work on drafting a $2.7 million change order to pay for the basin height increase. Great Lakes hired a subcontractor for the work, which city officials say is wrapping up now.
Great Lakes wrote in a February letter to the city and Chastain engineers that the company did work in 2017 that was related to the basin's less-than-expected capacity, and their shortened work season left them with unpaid labor costs for crews left idle. Their estimate of those costs came to about $2.2 million.
While city officials maintain taxpayers should not be held liable for the extra costs, Tyus and Newell said it was too early to say who was responsible for the problem, and whether Chastain's measurements of how much space would be needed for the Oakley basin were sufficiently thorough.
"I have a hard time just saying, 'Yeah, you should've done it this way,'" Newell said. "I didn't have that information. Based on the information we had at the time, I come to my own conclusions."
Klingner's review of the project found that Chastain's calculations met the Illinois Department of Natural Resources' standards of determining how much the dredging materials mixture of silt, sand and water would settle into the basin, what engineers call the sediment's "bulking factor."
"They did rely on the state parameters, and there's some very excellent dredge guys at the state who have done this a lot," Newell said.
But the same report also concluded that no one related to the project had collected and analyzed data "to specifically characterize the sediments being dredged prior to the commencement of dredge activities."
Moore Wolfe said she'll wait for the full picture to emerge before deciding on whether the city should reconsider contracting with Chastain on future projects.
"Chastain has been a good partner for the city for many many, years," she said. "I know a lot of those people that work there; they work very hard and they're professionals."
Newell said there are always issues that come up in public works projects, and what affects the standing of an engineer or contractor with the city is whether they're willing to work on a resolution.
"We have been working together (with Chastain) to work through this," Tyus said.
Whether the city had done its own due diligence in overseeing the project and keeping tabs on the progress at the Oakley basin, Tyus said, "It's not something I would answer at this point because we're still in the discussion of what occurred."
Klingner, the Quincy firm that reviewed the project in March, had more experience in dredging, Newell said. But Chastain had been involved with several smaller dredging projects and work on the Oakley Sediment Basin in the past.
"Chastain had a lot of knowledge of the lake and the material coming from the lake," he said. "For this last project, should they have done more sampling when they sampled stuff (as part of) working there for 20 years?"
With the benefit of hindsight, Newell said, "Yeah, they should've answered that question differently."