Col. Kimberly M. Colloton
United States Army Corps of Engineers South Pacific Division
Dear Col. Colloton: August 22, 2018
As you are aware, the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) has continued to serve the survivors of the 2017 North Bay wildfires with respect to debris removal operations. Cal OES has engaged consultants and contractors to complete backfilling and other repairs stemming from the debris removal operations. Through the execution of these additional operations, we have discovered a number of issues related to the debris removal that necessitate the immediate reengagement of the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), specifically with regard to properties damaged by USACE's contractors. Since December of 2017, Cal OES has made multiple attempts to reengage USACE as well as seek critical data regarding actions by federal contractors to no avail.
After extensive on-site inspections, the issues we have discovered thus far include, but are not limited to, obvious over-scraping of properties, severe damage to driveways and sidewalks, and damage to wells and septic tanks. Additionally, more than a dozen sites that were deemed cleared by USACE have recently been discovered to contain contaminated ash and fire debris. This is unacceptable.
Based on these observations, Cal OES and the impacted counties have serious concerns associated with the US ACE lack of oversight of its contractors during the debris removal operation. Due to this egregious oversight, USACE's contractors caused substantial damage to many survivors' properties resulting in revictimization of the affected wildfire survivors. For instance, some residents' driveways were clearly destroyed due to a subcontractor's failure to place protective material over a driveway. Placement of these protective measures is a standard course of action. A failure to undertake basic protective measures is negligence and likely a breach of the contract between USACE and its contractors. Additionally, it is clear that USACE's lack of oversite allowed its contractors to take far more soil than was necessary on hundreds of lots. Given these subcontractors were paid per ton of soil removed, it is probable this over-excavation was an intentional effort to capitalize on this tragedy by defrauding the government. USACE allowed this to occur.
In Sonoma County alone, there were nearly 600 reports of overscraping. Cal OES evaluated each of these cases and has stepped up to undertake repairs on nearly 300 of these properties. There are approximately an additional 80 properties that are over excavated to the point where major engineering is required to repair the property. In addition to the instances of over-scraping, there has been approximately 260 properties damaged in other respects. This includes but is not limited to damage to septic systems, wells, private walkways and sidewalks, private roads, footings, retaining walls, cables, and basements. Today, Cal OES has undertaken or plans to undertake repairs on 43 of these properties.
Throughout the debris removal operations, we continually advised USACE of damage to properties both at the Area Field Office as well as at Cal OES headquarters. USACE advised that it failed to include certain remedial provisions in its contracts that would require contractors to repair damage absent a showing of negligence. Putting aside this contractual misstep and the lack of transparency into USACE's contracting procedures, much of the damage appears to be the result of USACE contractor negligence, and therefore should have been remedied per the terms of the contract. To minimize the impact to wild fire survivors and to mitigate these issues, Cal OES has engaged a separate contractor and spent millions of state dollars to repair some of the over-excavation, damaged septic systems, and damaged wells. The state should not have to shoulder the burden of this unnecessary expense and effort. Had USACE properly monitored its contractors and remedied mistakes as they occurred, the state, county, and wildfire survivors would not be in this position.
In addition to the damage caused by USACE's contractors, USACE failed to cooperate with Cal OES. Following USACE's demobilization from the North Bay counties, Cal OES received hundreds of complaints from homeowners. However, Cal OES was unable to properly evaluate these complaints because USACE refused to provide Cal OES with the complete issue resolution files. In fact, Cal OES just learned this week that after months of requests and following congressional pressure, USACE finally agreed to provide the requested documentation to Cal OES, allegedly later this week.
In order to ensure survivors do not suffer any further as a result of the lack of USACE engagement and their contractors' negligent and potentially fraudulent acts, it is critical USACE immediately reengage with Cal OES to work together to resolve these outstanding issues.
I appreciate and fully expect your immediate attention to this matter and hope that together, we can amicably serve the needs of wildfire survivors and successfully complete the largest debris operations mission in California history.
MARK S. GHILARDUCCI
Cal OES Governor’s Office of Emergency Services
KQED: In Scathing Letter, State Criticizes Army Corps' Poor Oversight in North Bay Wildfire Cleanup