Hialeah gives ultimatum to businesses involved with water plant

Workers prepare to install a new pipe inside one of the large water storage tanks in the facility.
Workers prepare to install a new pipe inside one of the large water storage tanks in the facility. El Nuevo Herald

The city of Hialeah gave an ultimatum to the two companies operating the million-dollar water treatment facility: If you don’t solve all the water plant’s problems in 45 days, the authorities will seek another company that can make it work.

Public works director Armando Vidal said that Inima and Aecom companies haven’t made the necessary efforts to resolve the numerous problems faced by that public infrastructure since its inauguration in November 2013.

Vidal indicated that according to the established contract, the companies have until May 2 to approve a new evaluation and solve all the issues which have provoked the water treatment facility’s current status. The water plant’s operations have been, once again, stopped for the past three weeks.

“If they don’t pass the test, the mayor [of Hialeah, Carlos Hernandez] will have to make a decision […] which will consider the annulling of the contract and the search of a new business which can finish the project,” Vidal told el Nuevo Herald. “Simultaneously, we’ll start the legal process to defend the rights of the city and of the county.”

Vidal’s statements publicly reveal, for the first time, the tensions between the municipal government and the businesses operating the plant, which is located in a rural area on the northeast of Hialeah and has required an investment of more than $100 million dollars to construct. Half of that investment has been financed by county funds and the other half by city of Hialeah debt bonds.

On Friday, during a tour throughout the water treatment facility’s installations, an el Nuevo Herald team saw units of employees working to fix different equipment.

Ramon Diaz, the project manager — hired by both companies — said that he estimated that the reparation work in the water plant would secure the facility’s operation at the end of March.

“We’ve had several mechanical problems,” said Diaz. “But we have produced perfect water and my idea is that we’ll be ready by the end of the month.”

The work which required the most attention by personnel on Friday was the repair of two 50-foot tall tanks, each with the capacity to hold five million gallons of water.

Public records held by el Nuevo Herald, as well as water plant employee testimonies, indicate that a large pipe belonging to the tank in the west sector of the base had broken, which caused the spread of lime deposits and turbidity of the water. This problem was detected March 12. Work is now being done to change the pipe, using an enormous crane.

After draining the tank in the west sector, a dozen holes were located in the concrete slab on the interior floor. It was then that Vidal ordered the second tank to be inspected as well.

Numerous problems

Vidal said that inspectors had found that the plant requires at least 30 fixes; however, the amount of money required to cover those works was not tallied.

Aside from tank repairs, the most important works listed by Vidal signal the need to solve imperfections in the so-called “acid neutralization system,” as well as in the computerized system which permits the automatic functioning of the plant, known as Scada.

“If [Inima and Aecom] had invested in what was needed a year ago, when all of these problems began to surge, all of these issues would have been resolved today,” said Vidal. “What we’re doing is simply making the contract be complied with.”

Vidal reiterated that the deadline for Inima and Aecom to solve all the plant’s issues is May 2. Its rooted in the first adjustment of the contract signed in March 2012 by the companies, the city of Hialeah and Miami-Dade County.

In 2010, Inima was selected in a bidding process despite questioning by diverse voices who criticized the administration of then-Mayor Julio Robaina, who at that time emphasized that the water treatment facility was necessary to promote the urban development of that area of Hialeah. Later, Inima partnered with Aecom, a business associate who would help develop the plant.

However, the project faced numerous problems which have been documented by el Nuevo Herald, from failures in the wells due to thunderstorms to the detection of coliform bacteria found in water samples collected last August.

Hialeah’s water treatment facility was inaugurated by Mayor Hernandez in October 2013, during a ceremony attended by several municipal and county authorities. At the event political figures made a toast with a drink of water which was apparently treated in the facility, however, a year later it was discovered that the water consumed that day was bottled.

Hernandez has systematically denied that the inauguration held a week prior to his reelection as mayor had any political objective. But in mid-October, he expressed his frustration, for the first time, about the operation delays experienced by the plant.

A week after Hernandez’s declarations, el Nuevo Herald reported that Inima was also dealing with another controversy over a water treatment facility built in 2008, in the city of Brockton, Massachusetts. The problems in Brockton included construction permitting delays as well as the detection of coliform bacteria.

Hialeah government officials have said they weren’t aware of the controversy involving Inima.

Operations Halted

In November, Hialeah authorities and Inima and Aecom representatives met at Miami-Dade county headquarters to discuss the status of the water plant with County Mayor Carlos Gimenez and other commissioners.

In that meeting, Vidal said that the water treated at the plant had started to be distributed on October 23, assuring that the operators had achieved the production of the required quantity of water (7.5 million gallons daily), guaranteeing the good quality of the water. But Vidal made it clear that preoccupations were centered on problems in regards to the plant’s systems of operations.

Apparently, everything was running smoothly until March 3 when a supervisor from Severn Trent Services, a company subcontracted by Inima and Aecom, informed about the halting of operations at the plant due to water turbidity detected by the computerized system, according to municipal documents.

According to city inspectors and plant officials, the problem was attributed to the rupture of a large pipe inside one of the water tanks. After ordering a series of analysis, the tests discarded the presence of bacteria. Diaz, project manager for Inima, said that in the water plant water samples are analyzed four times a day.

However, on Feb. 26, a test held by the city of Hialeah on a sample taken at the water distribution center, on West 138th Street and 36th Avenue, resulted positive for coliform bacteria.

Vidal said that this case has nothing to do with the plant. He said that the pipe at the time of this test was broken because of a car accident. Despite this, Vidal added, a city employee took the water sample “without realizing that the pipe was broken, and that allows for dirt and bacteria to enter.”

“I came back [from vacation] on Monday, March 2, and I found this entire situation. I spoke with the Department of Health, and we ordered the cleaning of the system and took new samples for three days,” explained Vidal. “The new samples indicated that everything was okay and that there weren’t any bacteria. ... In reality, all of that was a case that had nothing to do with the water treatment facility in Hialeah, but that provoked a certain amount of panic … in a way that was unnecessary.”

Beyond this, what’s certain is that Vidal has rejected “the acceptance of the project” by the city of Hialeah and Miami-Dade County.

The Rejection

On January 26th, Vidal informed Inima it had failed the test and asked the company to comply with its legal obligations as per the contract. The city official stated that the plant must “be ready” by Sept. 19.

Nine days later, Inima responded and told Hialeah authorities that they were “in disagreement with that position.”

Vidal emphasized that the city of Hialeah and Miami-Dade County faced claims by the companies, and vice versa, but the dollar amount of these have not yet been established.

“When they [the companies] fix the plant, they pass the test again and the time in which we approve everything comes again, that’s when the amount of claims on both sides will be determined,” said Vidal.

Vidal also criticized the companies for not responding to a letter sent Feb. 10, which stated that they were to have an engineer licensed in the state of Florida to certify that the plant meets all the requirements established in the contract. Because of this, Hialeah now evaluates the possibility of a legal showdown.

“The city of Hialeah’s legal team, and I assume that the legal team of the companies, have spent month evaluating the different options,” said Vidal. “It’s never easy to make this kind of decisions, but when it comes to a point in which progress is evidently not taking place, and in which every day there’s a new obstacle, unfortunately difficult decisions have to be considered […], among them looking for another company which can finish the project.”

Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter @kikeflor