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$18-Million Challenge : Indiana Engineers Face Biggest Test in McColl Cleanup

February 17, 1985|MARCIDA DODSON | Times Staff Writer

CHESTERTON, Ind. — Hidden in a modest woods on the edge of Lake Michigan, the single-story brick offices of Canonie Engineers are quiet and unpretentious, which is just the way Tony C. Canonie Jr. likes to do business.

Methodically and with little fanfare, the company in the past six years has drained toxic pools, dismantled contaminated pesticide plants, neutralized chemical-soaked soil, designed treatment systems to purge polluted ground water and dug up assorted forms of hazardous waste. Yet all the while, the firm's public profile rarely rose above the excavations it undertook.

Those quiet days are over, for its next job will shine the limelight on Canonie Engineers.

The environmental engineering company--a subsidiary of a once-struggling road-paving firm--will dig up the McColl dump in Fullerton in one of the largest excavations ever conducted under the "Superfund" hazardous waste cleanup program.

Whereas the company had once focused on capturing privately financed, less publicly known work, Canonie Engineers now is about to begin one of the most expensive and heavily scrutinized hazardous waste cleanups ever paid for by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Canonie's $18-million challenge will be to unearth 200,000 tons of sickeningly odorous World War II refinery acid waste and contaminated dirt from a vacant lot and a chunk of a golf course without disturbing the health of hundreds of people who live in upper-middle-class homes next to the dump site.

Answering a nationwide call for bids, Canonie Engineers won the technically complicated and politically sensitive contract, defeating a giant in the industry, Chemical Waste Management, a subsidiary of the nation's largest hazardous waste handler.

Yet it was the challenge of the job--not the attention it would bring them--that attracted Canonie Engineers to McColl, company officials insist.

"It was just our cup of tea," Canonie, president and chairman of the board of Canonie Engineers' parent company, Canonie Inc. of Muskegon, Mich., said of the firm's decision to bid on the McColl job.

But winning the contract was not easy.

A study of state Department of Health Services documents shows that the panel of state, federal and consulting representatives reviewing the bids last year had serious concerns about Canonie Engineers' ability to perform the job well. Of particular concern was the company's proposed health and safety plan, a crucial issue because workers would be handling potentially health-endangering chemicals in a densely populated area.

Some evaluators believed Canonie's health and safety plan--which is supposed to explain the precautions that will be taken to protect workers and nearby residents during the cleanup--lacked sufficient information about such matters as training, protective equipment and emergency decontamination, according to a memo.

The panel gave Canonie's technical plan for cleaning up the dump a barely passing grade--70.32. A bidder needed a score of 70 to be considered qualified, and half of the eight panel members rated Canonie below 70.

Under the state procedures, bidders were first screened to eliminate unqualified firms. Then the contract was to be awarded to the qualified firm that submitted the lowest bid. In the McColl case, that was Canonie Engineers.

But so unsettled were the panelists with Canonie's barely passing score that authorities called the three finalist bidders in for unexpected interviews at the state Department of Health Services' Sacramento offices so that they could clarify their written bids.

Yet the Canonie team did not perform well in their interview and "did not resolve concerns and questions . . ." according to a memo by Radian Corp. of Austin, Tex., the consultant to the state.

The bid evaluators later were polled over the telephone, and a majority gave the firm a somewhat hesitant thumbs up, memos show. Their recommendation was given to the health department director, who decided to award the contract to Canonie.

Tom Bailey, program management chief for the Health Department toxic substances control division, acknowledged that the evaluators originally had "a great deal of concern" about Canonie.

But, Bailey said, the evaluators' scoring system was designed to eliminate all but the above-average bidders to assure that a good company was chosen. The fact that Canonie barely passed the cutoff score does not mean it was barely qualified, he said.

Further, since the company began work on the McColl dump, "they've demonstrated a high level of professionalism and capability," Bailey said. "They're a well-qualified firm."

Despite the concerns about Canonie Engineers, several evaluation team members said they made no comprehensive background check on the firm and restricted their analyses to the written bids.

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