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Originally published Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 7:52 PM

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Jury favors King County in Brightwater tunneling dispute

A jury awarded King County $130 million in damages over tunneling work for the Brightwater sewage-treatment plant. If the award stands, it could mean rate relief for customers. But contractors are likely to appeal.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A jury awarded King County $130 million in damages Thursday in a dispute about tunneling work for the sewage-treatment plant.

King County filed a lawsuit in 2010 alleging that a consortium of contractors failed to meet deadlines after two boring machines broke down hundreds of feet underground.

After two weeks of deliberations, a King County Superior Court jury sided with the county, awarding $155.8 million to recover costs associated with project delays. The jury, however, also granted the contractors $25 million in counterclaims, for a net award of $130 million.

"This verdict vindicates our positions that Brightwater project delays and cost overruns were the responsibility of the contractor," said County Executive Dow Constantine in a statement.

The tunnel contracting firm, VPFK, was a joint venture of three companies — Vinci Construction Grands Projets, Parsons, and Frontier-Kemper Constructors. It was awarded a $212 million contract to build two Brightwater tunnels after a bidding process in 2006.

Contractors are likely to appeal, according to a statement from Thierry Portafaix, project manager for VPFK.

"Naturally, we are disappointed that the jury did not fully decide in our favor," Portafaix said. "However, we believe that the court made many legal and procedural rulings during the case that were erroneous and significantly affected the jury's decision."

If the award stands, said Christie True, head of the county's Natural Resources and Parks Department, it should spell relief for ratepayers. "That money would come back, most likely meaning we'd borrow less for a future project," she said. In turn, that probably means some anticipated rate increases would not be as much as projected.

For the next two years, the King County portion of a monthly sewer bill for an average residential customer will be $39.79, according to True. In 2015 it's expected to increase to $43.75.

It's possible the Brightwater award would reduce the 2015 increase, she said. But it's too early to say how much. The county likely will try to recover attorneys' fees, she added.

Brightwater, the $1.8 billion treatment plant in Woodinville, opened last year.

The legal dispute arose after the two boring machines broke down, threatening to delay the completion of Brightwater's 13-mile tunnel carrying treated waste to Puget Sound.

Though contractors repaired one machine and plowed ahead with a 2.2-mile connection between Kenmore and Bothell in 2011, county officials said they couldn't accept the delay and added cost the contractor proposed for repairing the second machine and finishing the job.

The county hired a new joint-venture contractor, Jay Dee Coluccio, to finish the remaining 1.9-mile tunnel between Shoreline and Lake Forest Park.

The 13-mile tunnel between Brightwater and a 600-foot deep outfall a mile from Point Wells began full operation in November.

By hiring a new contractor, Constantine said, the job was completed more quickly and at a lower cost than otherwise possible.

Bob Young: 206-464-2174 or byoung@seattletimes.com

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