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Originally published Saturday, June 5, 2010 at 10:03 PM

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Possible bidder on viaduct fired in B.C. tunnel project

One of three tunneling firms poised to bid on a $1.1 billion contract for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel is in court after being fired from a tunneling job in Vancouver, B.C.

Seattle Times staff reporter

One of three tunneling firms poised to bid on a $1.1 billion contract for the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement tunnel is in court after being fired from a tunneling job in Vancouver, B.C.

Bilfinger Berger, a Germany company, stopped work on two tunnels for a water-filtration project in January 2008, saying it was concerned about hazardous rock conditions and safety of workers.

The city of Vancouver eventually fired and later sued Bilfinger for $200 million, the extra money it said it has to spend to finish the project.

Bilfinger, in turn, sued the city, claiming it improperly canceled the project.

"We suspended the work because (Bilfinger) was not prepared to proceed under the terms of the contract," said Bill Morrell, spokesman for the city of Vancouver. "The current contractor, who we engaged last summer, is proceeding using exactly the same equipment and protocol as in the original contract and is making good progress."

Bilfinger won the $100 million contract in 2004 by bidding almost half the amount of the second-lowest bidder. It finished about half the job. The project is a $600 million pair of water-filtration tunnels that connect water from two reservoirs into one filtration system. The tunnels run a total of nearly nine miles and are up to 2,100 feet deep.

Alaskan Way Viaduct project administrator Ron Paananen said he was not familiar with the Vancouver situation.

"We'll evaluate (Bilfinger's) proposal when it comes in," he said. "This project is different from the one up there."

The Alaskan Way Viaduct design calls for a hole 56-feet wide beneath downtown. That will require the world's widest-ever boring machine.

Paananen said Seattle's tunneling project has built-in protections for problems like the one Bilfinger faced in Vancouver.

Washington is using a different contracting method known as "design build," in which the contractors share responsibility for understanding and solving problems in the soil along the tunnel route. "This reduces the risk to us by a lot," Paananen said.

The state has taken soil samples and shared the results with contractors. The soils in downtown Seattle are much softer than those Bilfinger encountered in Vancouver.

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Local tunneling projects have had their own problems, though. A Sound Transit tunnel at Beacon Hill caused voids in the earth, and a drilling machine is stuck at King County's Brightwater sewage-tunnel project.

One of the unsuccessful bidders for the Vancouver project was Kiewit Pacific, which is teaming with Bilfinger on the viaduct project.

Kent Grisham, spokesman for Kiewit, based in Nebraska, said he didn't know about the Vancouver situation but said his company has good relations with Bilfinger. The two companies paired up on a combined sewer-outflow project in Portland involving a six-mile, 22-foot-wide tunnel.

"Kiewit goes into joint-venture partnerships very carefully," Grisham said. "We had no qualms about a joint ventureship with Bilfinger."

Kim Cox, a Portland spokeswoman, said there have been no problems on her city's sewer project.

But the Vancouver project, which goes to court next year, is a different matter. The city filed the first lawsuit against Bilfinger, claiming costs to finish the job.

Bilfinger fired back with its own lawsuit saying the city improperly canceled the contract after the company raised safety issues.

The company's lawsuit says it stopped work in January 2008 after flaking rock in the tunnel caused safety concerns, and told the city it couldn't continue until the city provided a design to safely deal with that condition.

A week later Vancouver asked Bilfinger to resume the work. Bilfinger refused, and Vancouver terminated the contract that May.

Bilfinger accuses the city not only of wrongly ending the contract but also of illegally seizing its equipment in the tunnel, including the tunnel-boring machine. It's asking for about $22 million from Vancouver, and included in its lawsuit a letter of support from labor unions involved in the project.

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

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