If at First You Don't Succeed, Get Hired by the City Again

Consultants Hazen and Sawyer oversaw one the biggest utility failures in Fort Lauderdale history. So why does the city keep hiring them?

The animosity had been steeping for a decade. Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle finally let it loose recently when his colleagues on the City Commission opted to hire the engineering firm of Hazen and Sawyer to oversee the city's drinking water plant. At the mere mention of the firm, Naugle's face tenses and his lips purse. Hazen and Sawyer collected more than $3 million in fees to advise the city on a $24 million compost plant that has never operated more than two weeks in a row and has been shut down for eight years.

"It was universally accepted back then that [Hazen and Sawyer] were a disaster," Naugle asserts. "I guess everybody's willing to forgive, but when millions of dollars of taxpayers' money is going down the drain, I don't think we should look the other way. They were the consultant we hired to make sure everything worked, and nothing worked. C'mon folks."

Back in 1983 a new technology designed by PURAC, Inc. of Sweden was chosen for the city's new compost plant, promising to turn yard waste and sludge into compost. Sludge is the smelly solid byproduct left after treating sewage. The resulting compost, a dirtlike fertilizer, could then be sold to nurseries or added to soil in city parks and public places.

Utilities officials at the time believed the state was getting ready not only to outlaw the dumping of yard waste in landfills but to make its current method of sludge disposal illegal, too. The city had been trucking its sludge to Martin County and spreading it on farm fields. Recycling yard waste and sludge into compost would solve both problems.

Hazen and Sawyer was hired as the city's engineering consultant and therefore responsible for making sure that PURAC built what it said it would build -- an operable compost plant.

The plant opened in October 1988 and closed intermittently over the next two years to work out operational problems. South Florida yard waste means palm fronds, and it seems the sinewy leaves choked up the churning mechanism inside the composting bin. Another problem arose when the full impact of an open bin was discovered -- the smell of waste wafted over surrounding neighborhoods every day it operated.

Patrick Davis, vice president of Hazen and Sawyer, says his firm couldn't be expected to foresee problems with the plant's operations because the process being built had never before been tested. Besides, he says, Hazen and Sawyer was only responsible for making sure PURAC built what it said it was going to build, not whether it worked.

The plant was closed for good on August 9, 1990, a day before the Broward County Environmental Quality Control Board (now the Department of Natural Resource Protection) was to yank its operating license because of the offensive smell.

City engineers and Hazen and Sawyer's project manager said the problems could be fixed by using wood chips instead of palm fronds to mix with the sludge and building air scrubbers to clean any escaping air of odors. The city could have had a plant that worked for an additional $2 million over the nearly $24 million already spent to construct the thing. The improvements were never made because they proved more expensive than spreading the sludge on farmland, which the state never outlawed. The plant remains closed.

Fort Lauderdale's compost plant, however, wasn't the only project supervised by Hazen and Sawyer to encounter problems:

*A sewage treatment plant the firm oversaw in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in the early 1990s was more than six months late in opening; two of the four machines that blow oxygen into waste to remove odors didn't blow; boilers designed to operate off methane gas created by the process wouldn't burn methane; and the $1 million computer system didn't work. The city blamed the contractor and withheld seven months' worth of payments. Hazen and Sawyer collected $780,000 for its work, according to press reports.

*Hazen and Sawyer was the consulting firm that oversaw the expansion of a wastewater plant in Port St. Lucie that was built and operated by General Development Utilities (GDU). When GDU went bankrupt, the City of Port St. Lucie took over the plant. Port St. Lucie City Manager Don Cooper says although the firm was paid, the work wasn't completed properly. The city asked Hazen and Sawyer to leave, and city engineers completed the expansion, Cooper says. Patrick Davis, vice president of Hazen and Sawyer, says he could find no record of this project.

"If you have a series of these [troubled projects], if the common thread is Hazen and Sawyer, you have to look at Hazen and Sawyer," Cooper says.

Two other compost plants designed by PURAC but using different consultants, work fine:

*Sarasota's environmental resources manager Doug Taylor says his city's plant designed by PURAC has been up and running since 1987. The city sells the resulting compost as a potting-soil additive. The consultant was Smith & Gillespie, a firm out of Jacksonville.

*In Cape May County, New Jersey, the PURAC-designed plant worked through some kinks of its own and has been open since 1985.

Naugle blames Hazen and Sawyer for not making sure Fort Lauderdale's plant worked. "Everybody [blamed Hazen and Sawyer] back then," he says. "I don't know what happened to their memory."

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