• King County sewer line project on track to cost more than $100 million

    By: Graham Johnson

    Updated:

    SEATTLE - With a babbling creek and a chicken coop out back, it feels idyllic at Ken and Crystal Friday's home.

    In 2016, the calm was shattered by a long construction project that included something called pipe ramming.

    "Set your clocks for an earthquake every single day," Ken Friday said.

    The Friday family lives beside a King County sewer line project called the North Creek Interceptor.

    A KIRO 7 investigation found King County first spent $32 million to design and build a project supposed to be finished by 2010.

    It didn't work.

    Now, more than eight years later, a second attempt is finally wrapping up.

    It's projected to cost another $85 million, which would put the total price tag over $100 million.

    "The costs just get passed right through to the ratepayer. You wonder why your sewer bill goes up so much, it's because of mistakes like this," said Rob McKenna, the former state attorney general who is representing the sewer line contractor in a bitter legal dispute with King County.

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    McKenna's client is Frank Coluccio Construction Company, run by the sons of its founder.

    The Coluccios are tunneling experts, who over decades successfully built many local sewer projects.

    The North Creek Interceptor was different.

    "We ran into trouble immediately out there," said Joe Coluccio, the company's CEO.

    In 2008, King County hired Coluccio to install some of the pipe using a microtunnel boring machine.

    Think of Bertha, the drill for the new State Route 99 tunnel and shrink it, so small that the operator is up on the ground, driving it remotely.

    Coluccio says it kept running into boulders and cobbles because King County required the contractor to use a microtunnel boring machine with a diameter that was too small.

    The contractors said a larger machine would have easily cut through boulders and said they offered to switch machines for an additional $2.5 million.

    "They just didn't go for it. They must have decided they had a better mousetrap and decided they were going to shutter the project and redesign it," Joe Coluccio said.

    The redesign took years.

    Starting in 2014, King County awarded new contracts, and Frank Coluccio Construction again won the bid.

    This time, the county required a different type of machine, with an open face.

    Once again, drilling did not go well.

    The company gave us this video of the wet soil workers encountered making for slow progress and a sloppy mess when the muck came into the machine.

    Coluccio's safety officer shut them down.

    The Coluccios say the county kept insisting on the open-face drill, which is designed for dry conditions.

    "The county was sort of in denial about it, they just wanted us to forge on," Joe Coluccio said.

    With the project stalled again, Coluccio proposed switching to a microtunnel machine, which is designed for wet soil and keeps the operator safely at the surface.

    Coluccio said that would have cost another $7 million.

    But King County officials stood by their requirements and terminated the contract with Coluccio.

    As the two sides began mediation, the county sued.

    "They sue in the middle of mediation and they just make one bad decision after another about the project," McKenna said.

    McKenna said county officials kept requiring the wrong construction techniques.

    "It seems like everything that could go wrong with the project in terms of decision making has gone wrong," McKenna said.

    King County's Wastewater Treatment Division turned down requests for an interview, citing the lawsuit.

    In written statements to KIRO 7, the county described Coluccio's "failed performance" on the first attempt and "refusal to tunnel" on the second as primary reasons for the delays and cost overruns.

    The county says it paid Coluccio more than $40 million on four North Creek Interceptor contracts, but the company only completed one of them.

    County officials say they sued to protect ratepayers and recover the extra costs.

    Declaring an emergency in March 2017, King County hired the second-lowest bidder, J.W. Fowler, which the county says "completed all the open shield tunneling drives in a reasonable time" with the same machine, "which Coluccio said couldn't be done."

    Coluccio says the difference is the soil had become much drier because of a massive effort with dewatering pumps.

    "The lapse of time for when we were off the project and Fowler started, the dewatering systems were in place for six months plus so that helped, so they had better conditions considerably than we did," company president Nick Coluccio said.

    Dewatering can also cause ground to settle.     

    Crystal and Ken Friday showed KIRO 7 a dip in their living room floor.

    While geotechnical experts aren't certain what caused it, the Fridays say it's another headache from sewer project next door.

    "The project was huge," Crystal Friday said.

    "It was bonkers," Ken Friday added.

    The North Creek Interceptor is the latest troubled project for King County's Wastewater Treatment Division.

    Earlier this year, KIRO 7 reported on a broken pipe at a combined sewer overflow project in Magnolia that failed soon after installation.

    In 2017, the West Point treatment plant failed, and sent untreated sewage into Puget Sound.

    The Brightwater treatment plant project had cost overruns and lawsuits, and eventually ended up costing $1.8 billion.

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