Stuck in the Membrane with CH2M Hill

How Spokane County gave itself over to an omnipresent contractor and an expensive sewage treatment plan that’s getting us nowhere.

By Tim Connor


(December 2008) Bruce Rawls, Spokane County’s utilities director, ch2-membrane-300x286strikes some of my colleagues as a stubborn man and perhaps he is. But in my short tenure (2005) working for Sierra Club on the Spokane River dissolved oxygen problem, I found that I enjoyed his company. In my dealings with him he’s always been courteous and personable and, so far as I could tell, impeccably frank. That’s true even though we were on opposite sides of the fence in regards to the Spokane River generally, and the county’s sewage treatment plans specifically.

The fence defies easy description. Nobody in Spokane wants a dirtier river. But neither is it a secret that the county a) wants to build a new wastewater plant that will put new effluent in the river, and b) the county doesn’t believe it can reliably reduce phosphorus concentrations in its effluent to less 50 µg/L, or less than five times the concentration that would be permissible to discharge to the Spokane River, given the very limited capacity of the river to absorb phosphorous. That means the county’s plant can’t get a discharge permit. But the county thinks it should be allowed to build the plant anyway. Given that we’re talking about the commitment of hundreds of millions of public dollars, the stakes are high, and so are tempers.
But here’s what got me Saturday morning. It was the quote in the S-R’s front page story on the sewage treatment battle by Rawls’s county colleague Dave Moss explaining how the county cast its lot with CH2M Hill.

“It’s not that it’s not important to get down to low phosphorous levels. It’s a huge driver of the project,” Moss said. “One [the losing bidder] offered to get a bit lower. But CH2M Hill intimated that they could get lower if they needed to..”


Even accounting for the possibility that Moss chose his words poorly, this was stunning, at least to me. It’s a bit like saying the county put a premium on secure assets when it chose a bank and called it good when the bank “intimated” that the funds could be produced if the county really needed them.

Why was a top CH2 official allowed to send a message to another private company essentially defining the terms by which the company might be eligible for “reconsideration” for a public works contract? It certainly gives the appearance that the county was outsourcing a government function to a company with a vested interest in the county’s decison-making.

The county’s deliberative process for picking the best technology and the best contractor for this remarkably expensive plant (well upwards of $100 million, before operating costs) has been in high gear for over a decade. The framing design criteria for the project, as explicitly laid out in the county’s own project documents, is that it comply with state and federal rules for discharges of phosphorus into an “impaired” waterway–the Spokane River. The explanation that CH2M Hill’s ability and commitment to reach this goal rests on a whispered intimation is mind-boggling.

Bruce Rawls worked for CH2M Hill–an Englewood, Colorado based, engineering, construction, and consulting firm–for 17 years before coming to work for the county. The fact that his former employer won the county contract with a less than persuasive case that the plant will do what it must do to be of value for Spokane rate payers and taxpayers raises eyebrows. And it should.

But what’s less discussed, and more roundly troubling, is just how deeply CH2M Hill officials had been inserted into the county’s decision-making and public relations efforts before the company became one of the two finalists (along with Veolia Water North America) for the county contract.

Documents obtained by Sierra Club via a public records request earlier this year show that the county chose membrane bioreactor (MBR) technology for its planned plant in late summer of 2002. Almost immediately, Jim Correll, the head of the Spokane office for the international company, sent Rawls an email, designated “confidential,” notifying Rawls that Correll had “put the word out to our folks about your decision to use membrane filtration in the county’s WWTP process. Jim Lozier from our Phoenix office has done a great deal of work with MBR and he provided some suggested criteria to consider including in your evaluation of the systems.”

The email then listed four criteria, the first three of which emphasized not the quality of plant operations (in terms of meeting effluent standards) but how many large plants a prospective contractor would have built and how many years they would have operated.

A contractor could easily rise to the top of such a selection process without coming near to demonstrating the one essential task that a new Spokane waste water treatment plant would need to have: the ability to treat phosphorous not just well, but extremely well. And that was bound to happen, because MBR technology (whatever its merits as an established waste water treatment method) is not particularly good at removing phosphorous. It was also bound to happen because the county and its consultants, including CH2M Hill, decided that the design criteria for phosphorous removal should be 50 µg/L, reasoning that this was the best that could be hoped for given the limits of existing technology. In other words, if you could show you could get phosphorous levels down to 50 µg/L in treated effluent, then you were eligible to get the county’s contract for the new plant.

It has never seemed to matter to the county or CH2M Hill that 50 µg/L gets you nothing in the way of a legal discharge into the Spokane River. Instead, the plan seems to have been to set the number at 50 µg/L and then use political pressure on state and federal regulators to get them to change or bend the rules (i.e. waive water quality standards) to allow a 50 µg/L discharge into the river.

With Rawls’s and the county’s blessing, Correll and CH2M Hill became not just consultants to the county, but outright partners in shaping and defending the county’s approach and the county decisions from which the company would ultimately benefit. The Correll emails reveal the depth of CH2′s involvement on the technology selection side. But it’s also important to note just how unabashedly out front the company (clearly with the county’s blessing) was on the policy side. On the policy issues, CH2′s John Spencer worked closely with Rawls and other representatives of Spokane River dischargers to develop the Use Attainability Analysis (UAA) that the dischargers hoped (and most probably still hope) will lead to a relaxation of water quality standards for phosphorous.

It was CH2 that prepared the UAA that the nine dischargers submitted and it was to John Spencer and CH2 that the state responded. An agreement was made to put the flawed UAA aside for the sake of the Spokane River Collaboration, and a quest for compromise. Conspicuously, when the Spokane River collaboration got under way, it was Spencer who was the point person for the county and the other dischargers. Because I was the only non-lawyer on the CFJ/Sierra Club team during much of the Spokane River TMDL collaboration, it was my role to attend leadership meetings where the coordination decisions for the collaboration were worked out. All of those meetings were at the CH2M Hill conference room in Spokane.

Prior to the collaboration, when my CFJ/Sierra Club colleagues were called on to negotiate on the dissolved oxygen issues affecting the county, as often as not they wound up negotiating directly with CH2M Hill and John Spencer.

“That’s who we talked to,” says CFJ attorney Bonne Beavers.

Given subsequent events–the county’s formal selection of CH2M Hill to build and operate an MBR plant, and the county’s admission that it has only an “intimation” that CH2H Hill can deliver on meeting the phosphorous reductions actually needed to obtain a permit–the company’s conduct and its relationship with the county are worth a second look.

One episode, documented in emails produced by the county, occurred when a Hayden, Idaho company, Blue Water Technologies Inc., had the temerity to complain in 2004. Blue Water’s beef was that it hadn’t been given a fair hearing in an advanced waste water technology workshop that, at the urging of state officials, the city and county convened to specifically examine methods for phosphorous removal.

The workshop occurred two years after the county had already decided to rely on MBR technology. It was facilitated by a CH2M Hill employee and featured CH2′s chief technology officer on the workshop’s small expert panel. The workshop report was prepared not by the city or the county, but by Jim Correll of CH2M Hill, which is why Blue Water vice president (now president) Tom Daugherty addressed his complaint to Correll.

“Although we are listed as Technology #10 on page 10 [of the workshop report],” wrote Daugherty in an October 11, 2004 email to Correll, “we were never contacted for data to provide the workshop participants.”

Morever, Daugherty complained, the workshop report was unduly dismissive of Blue Water pilot tests, including pilot test results showing that the Blue Water sand filter process was able to reduce phosphorous levels to 50 µg/L and lower.

Rawls was cc’d on Daugherty’s message. Tellingly, it was Correll who responded.

Here’s the last paragraph in Correll’s reply:

“You state that ‘we have cost information. We believe this information is so attractive it should be weighted accordingly and on the same plane was other technologies.’ The relative capabilities and costs of the technologies considered in the workshop were compared on the basis of actual, full scale, successfully operating facilities–not on the basis of hypothetical scaleability. Only when Blue Water can provide performance and cost information that meets this standard, will it justify reconsideration.”

So, here’s a reasonable question: as a matter of propriety, isn’t this a blatant conflict of interest? Why was a top CH2 official allowed to send a message to another private company essentially defining the terms by which the company might be eligible for “reconsideration” for a public works contract? It certainly gives the appearance that the county was outsourcing a government function to a company with a vested interest in the county’s decison-making.

Correll’s response also clearly reveals the circular logic of the whole scheme. The county’s contract experts were only going to consider data from “actual, full scale, successfully operating facilities.”
But this ignored what is arguably the most pivotal fact. A big MBR plant discharging phosphorous at 50 µg/L or higher into a waterway that is not already listed as “impaired” for dissolved oxygen would surely be considered a “successfully operating” facility by Correll’s standard.

But it couldn’t be considered a success to state residents, the Spokane Tribe, or Spokane County taxpayers, because the same plant here would, at best, force a bitter and expensive legal battle, even if state regulators could be pressured into issuing a permit in the first place. Blue Water is not a sprawling enterprise like CH2M Hill but the Hayden company continues to advance a process that shows “significant promise,” according to a CH2M Hill technology specialist, Bruce Johnson, who was quoted in Correll’s email.
Blue Water, a growing, innovative waste water treatment company located right here, in the Spokane River watershed, was told by Spokane County and CH2M Hill to hit the road. But that wasn’t the end of Blue Water. Over the past four years the company, working closely with the University of Idaho, has continued to grow and improve its process.

When Bruce Johnson and another CH2 specialist were contracted by Blue Water to perform a 2005-2006 evaluation of Blue Water’s reactive filtration system (installed at Hayden at an operating municipal waste treatment plant) they reported average monthly phosphorous levels in the effuent well below 50 µg/L, including one month below 10 µg/L.

“These effluent phosphorous levels limits,” they reported, “are equivalent to the best technologies currently available for phosphorous removal in the wastewater industry.”

Earlier this year, according to Blue Water, the company was able to achieve a 10 µg/L phosphorous discharge in a pilot project test at a municipal waste water treatment plant in Florida using its patented Blue PRO reactive filters. Just to be clear, the Blue PRO system is for so-called “tertiary” treatment, which is the last phase of sewage treatment–it doesn’t replace primary or secondary treatment processes needed for biological treatment of municipal sewage. Still, the Blue Water tests clearly undermine the county’s argument that the best one can hope and plan for in sewage treatment technology is a process that gets down to 50 µg/L phosphorous.

The county’s premise that 50 µg/L is the best you can do with available technology has been under fire for years. Indeed, following the 2004 workshop that Blue Water was not invited to, Katherine Cupps, the senior Department of Ecology official who attended the workshop, immediately raised concerns. Her questions focused on whether the workshop presentations had overlooked authoritative and promising reports on sand filter technology indicating that 20 µg/L or less was possible. Cupps also raised a question about the limitations of MBR technology.

Another person who thought CH2M Hill and Spokane County were not giving sand filtration systems adequate consideration was Dave Ragsdale, a veteran EPA engineer who works on Clean Water Act compliance issues in EPA’s regional office in Seattle. Ragsdale’s name may sound familiar to those who follow Spokane River issues. As the Spokesman-Review reported in September 2007, Ragsdale dissented from EPA’s controversial regulatory theory–since withdrawn–that would have essentially allowed Idaho dischargers to use up the full capacity of the Spokane River to absorb phosphorous in waste water discharges without causing dissolved oxygen problems downstream.

Ragsdale’s views on phosphorous treatment technology were shared with The Lands Council’s executive director Mike Petersen who, in a February 2005 e-mail, forwarded them on to Correll at CH2M Hill, Jeff Selle at the Spokane Chamber of Commerce, and Rawls.

“Two-stage filters have been installed at a number of WWTP [waste water treatment plants] in the NY City watershed and in several other states and are achieving effluent quality averaging close to 10 µg/L to P [phosphorous],” Ragsdale wrote Petersen. “There is some uncertainty about the average only because the treatment plants do not typically use analytical test methodologies that achieve detection levels much below 10 µg/L. The Spokane dischargers apparently dismissed this technology because none of these wastewater installations are for facilities bigger than 5 mgd (millions gallons per day). However, these type of filters with over 100 mgd capacity have been employed for drinking water treatment in New Mexico, Utah, and elsewhere (Parkson, 2005). I am currently awaiting more information from Parkson, one of the vendors for this filter technology. CH2M Hill and HDR [another county consultant] are pushing the MBR technology so hard it makes me wonder if they have some proprietary interest.”

Correll replied to Petersen with a two-page long email attempting to debunk Ragsdale’s information on dual-stage sand filtration and disputing the notion that the Spokane team was not giving fair consideration to the technology. The email included the following paragraph:

“Mr. Ragsdale also stated ‘CH2M Hill and HDR are pushing the MBR technology so hard it makes me wonder if they have some proprietary interest…’. This statement is so insulting that I’m tempted not to dignify it with a response. However, if you review the technology evaluation memorandum, you will see that membrane bioreactors [MBR] also did not score as highly as more conventional technologies, for the simple reason that the reviewers clearly recognized that MBR’s have not yet demonstrated successful applications at the rates of flow that are being considered in Spokane.”

Correll’s heartburn over Ragsdale didn’t go away. It emerged, for example, in an April 7, 2006 email that Correll’s colleague at CH2M Hill, John Spencer, shared with Rawls, thus making it a public record. After noting the most recent “claim” from Blue Water reporting progress on its sand filtration process, Correll wrote:

“This is getting extensive regional press. The EPA in this region is about to embark on a ‘comprehensive’ evaluation of phosphorous removal to determine if this kind of filtration is the next new technology. My skepticism results from the fact that EPA has assigned mgmt [sic]of the study to Dave Ragsdale who has made overt and covert efforts over the past 2 years to promote the new sand filters based on vendor claims and to undermine the credibility of major engineers in this field including CH2M Hill.”

Ironically, a short response to Correll from CH2′s Bruce Johnson, provides a very plausible explanation for why Ragsdale would be so restless about Spokane’s MBR fixation, and interested in looking at alternative treatment technology for phosphorous.

“We are looking at it [the phosphorous issue] right now,” Johnson wrote back. “We are awaiting the second phase data to get it worked out. As George would no doubt agree, MBRs alone will not reliably produce a TP [total phosphorous] less than 0.05 [50 µg/L], even with metal salt addition. Further treatment will always be required at those levels.”

The EPA study that Correll was concerned about, that Ragsdale authored, was published in April 2007. Entitled Advanced Wastewater Treatment to Achieve Low Concentration of Phosphorous, Ragsdale’s paper reported on observations at 23 advanced wastewater treatment systems used by 23 municipalities nationwide. The paper found that alternative wastewater treatment technologies could reduce phosphorous levels far below 50 µg/L.
“Chemical addition to wastewater with aluminum or iron-based coagulants followed by tertiary filtration can reduce total phosphorous concentrations in the final effluent to very low levels,” the report concluded. “The total phosphorous concentrations achieved by some of these WWTPs are consistently near or below 0.01 mg/l (10 µg/L).”

The purpose of Ragsdale’s study is clearly captured on page 5, where he writes about the growing number of studies that show that additional wastewater treatment will be needed in a number of Northwest watersheds to deal with dissolved oxygen problems.

Ragsdale was clearly referring to the Spokane controversy when he wrote: “Implementation of water quality improvement plans (called Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs)) have been significantly delayed by arguments about the availability and costs of treatment technologies capable of achieving very low phosphorous targets.”
It’s a fair question, at this point, to ask who’s been running the store at the county and for who’s benefit.

Since 2002, the county has been wedded to a sewage treatment technology that it clearly knows is only capable of providing a phosphorous number that is several times over the regulatory limit. Rather than acknowledging this and adjusting its plans, the county hooked itself to CH2M Hill to fight the water quality standards (the effort led by CH2′s John Spencer) and to justify its embrace of MBR technology.

The result has been a fascinating and expensive game of chicken, in which the county is still betting that regulators and the courts will ultimately back down and let the county build the plant it wants to build. However that ends, it’s important to understand the extent to which CH2M Hill assisted and emboldened the county on this high-stakes gamble while the company, all along, has been playing with house money.

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