Sewer Overhaul: CH2M Hill's Tarnished Past

Get this: The national engineering firm in the driver's seat to oversee Miami-Dade's $1.6 billion overhaul of the county's monumentally dilapidated sewer system has a history of violating the Clean Water Act, mishandling radioactive waste, billing for phantom work, and paying kickbacks.

In most places, that track record would get a vendor banned. In Miami-Dade, it shoots a company to the top of the pecking order.

Last month, county bureaucrats recommended that Mayor Carlos Gimenez negotiate a contract with Denver-based CH2M Hill to be the project manager responsible for fixing 7,500 miles of sewer lines and replacing sewer treatment plants in South Dade and Virginia Key. The firm was chosen over Los Angeles-headquartered AECOM.

CH2M Hill was chosen even though Miami-Dade Water & Sewer Department director John Renfrow knew the firm had to pay the U.S. Department of Justice an $18.5 million fine in March. Federal prosecutors allege CH2M Hill allowed rampant overtime fraud during the cleanup of a shuttered nuclear bomb test site in Washington state.

You see, county officials don't vet potential bidders until after they've submitted a winning proposal. Water & Sewer spokeswoman Jennifer Messemer says another department is reviewing the case against CH2M Hill before Gimenez begins negotiating with the company. Miami-Dade bureaucrats might also want to check out the website, which documents 12 scandals involving CH2M Hill during a six-year period.

For instance, in March 2005, CH2M Hill had to pay a $316,250 fine because the firm failed to prevent employees from being contaminated with radioactive waste during two incidents at the Washington bomb site. A year later, a subsidiary settled with federal prosecutors for violating the Clean Water Act at a wastewater treatment facility the company operates in Connecticut. The firm agreed to contribute $2 million to community projects. In 2009, it settled a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles alleging $2.6 million in overbilling. And there's more.

CH2M Hill spokesman John Corsi insists the scandals are isolated incidents in the firm's global body of work that includes nearly 100,000 projects. He asserts CH2M Hill swiftly addresses allegations of hanky-panky. "We do not condone any misconduct by employees, individuals, or subcontractors," he says. "The incidents raised are isolated and not indicative of CH2M Hill or how we do business. It is unfortunate that certain parties and individuals are trying to influence this process by raising unrelated issues through media outlets."

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Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.