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Deep Tunnel History Part 2


CH2M Hill cleared in Deep Tunnel mishap


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh District has exonerated the engineering firm CH2M Hill Inc. of any blame in the 1988 Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District Deep Tunnel project explosion that killed three men.


CH2M Hill, based in Minneapolis, had been issued 47 safety citations and fines totaling $470,000 by the U.S. Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission after a lengthy investigation.


The ruling from the appellate court in Chicago overturned the OSHA commission's decision and declared that CH2M Hill did not have liability in the deaths of the workers.


"This decision means a lot to every consulting engineer and architect in the country," said Francis Croak, a Milwaukee attorney for CH2M Hill. "If it had been allowed to stand, it would have completely changed (professional services) liabilities under OSHA regulations."


The project's primary contractor, S.A. Healy Co., McCook, Ill., also received safety citations and fines and was found liable.


During its review, CH2M Hill argued that the construction standards cited in the reprimand did not apply to an engineering firm that had no authority over construction procedures.  An OSHA administrative law judge initially agreed with CH2M Hill, but was overruled by the OSHA Review Commission.


"CH2M Hill could have settled this for less money outside the courts, but they fought to challenge OSHA's attempt to change the law through administrative means," said Croak, a partner with the Milwaukee firm Cook & Franke.


"The fact that Healy turned to CH2M Hill for advice does not indicate that CH2M Hill was acting as the de facto director of safety," the Appeals Court ruling stated.


The court said CH2M Hill merely acted as an intermediary between Healy and the sewerage district.  Any changes in safety procedures or final approvals were granted by the district.  In other words, CH2M Hill did not have any contractual responsibility for safety matters, Croak said.


"It would be disingenuous to say the record supports the commission or (Labor) secretary's conclusion that CH2M Hill played a central role as the nerve center for developing and implementing safety practices," the ruling stated.


The sewerage district's Deep Tunnel construction project was started in 1977 and was part of a $2.2 billion Milwaukee pollution abatement program.  The Deep Tunnel includes almost 80 miles of sewer tunnels and began operating in 1994.


Three Healy workers died in the tunnel during a Nov. 10, 1988, explosion after high concentrations of methane gas were ignited by underground machinery.


In a separate lawsuit, the sewerage district and CH2M Hill last December reached an out-of-court agreement in which CH2M Hill agreed to pay the district's $24 million to settle claims arising from the engineering firm's work on the north shore segment of the Deep Tunnel project.


The district used the settlement money to fund capital projects that otherwise would have been paid for through the district's property tax levy.


The lawsuit stemmed from increased costs on the north shore project related to subsurface water conditions and rock support problems.


At the time, the settlement was among the largest ever received by a government agency from an engineering firm.  As part of the settlement, neither the district nor CH2M Hill admitted wrongdoing or fault.


Source: Milwaukee Business Journal  


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