s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe

Read more about the recovery from the October 2017 wildfires in the North Bay: nbbj.news/recovery


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

Three Sonoma County residents who lost their homes in the 2017 firestorm have filed a class action lawsuit against companies involved in the debris cleanup, claiming two government-chosen firms purposely allowed debris haulers to remove too much soil from their properties for financial gain.

Plaintiffs Craig Mason, Patricia Healey and Gary Goodrich named AshBritt International and Tetra Tech Inc. in the lawsuit filed last month in U.S. District Court in Oakland on behalf of all residents of Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties whose burned properties were cleaned up by the companies and their contractors.

The lawsuit follows well- documented problems with the debris cleanup program run by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Contractors and subcontractors removed about 2.2 million tons of debris left behind by wildfires that burned more than 4,500 properties in Sonoma, Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties

“Our allegation is they did over-excavate with an intentional effort to capitalize on this tragedy,” said Robert Arns, the plaintiffs’ attorney.

Though their lawyer, Mason, Healey and Goodrich declined to comment. They are seeking unspecified damages.

The plaintiffs are suing under the civil provisions of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations — or RICO — Act, which was passed in 1970 to help law enforcement go after the mafia and organized crime.

They are accusing the companies of working together “in maximizing the profits of its constituent members in disaster cleanup projects” by excavating more than the 6 inches of soil spelled out in the removal contracts. The companies were paid between $200 and $300 per ton of debris removed, according to the lawsuit.

AshBritt chief of staff Gerardo Castillo, in an email, defended the work conducted by the Florida-based company, “and that of over 30 local and California contractors that performed debris removal on properties,” which he said was closely supervised by the Army Corps.

He noted that plaintiffs in a separate case represented by Arns’ law firm initially named AshBritt in a separate lawsuit for cleanup work in Napa County, but AshBritt has been dismissed from the case.

He said that in the class action lawsuit filed by the three fire survivors in Sonoma County, the company had a hand in the cleanup at only one of the properties.

“The amount of debris removed from properties followed all contract requirements,” Castillo said.

AshBritt is the subject of several lawsuits stemming from the North Bay cleanup, including a labor complaint filed last year in Sonoma County Superior Court by laborers, equipment operators and other workers employed in the debris cleanup. The workers claim they were paid below minimum wage, denied overtime compensation and not given breaks. These workers are also being represented by Arns’ firm. AshBritt did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the labor lawsuit.

A Tetra Tech spokeswoman didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment on the cleanup lawsuit.

In an unrelated case, the federal government in January accused the Pasadena-based civil engineering firm of fabricating radiation data and submitting false invoices worth tens of millions of dollars related to the environmental cleanup at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.

In the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires, property owners had two choices: participate in the government-sponsored fire cleanup or hire a private contractor.

Read more about the recovery from the October 2017 wildfires in the North Bay: nbbj.news/recovery


This story originally appeared on PressDemocrat.com, also part of the Sonoma Media Investments news network.

Local officials, including county supervisors and Santa Rosa city officials, urged people to opt for the government-run program overseen by the Army Corps. Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane said they were told it would be more cost- and time-efficient for burned-out residents.

But reports of problems with the public cleanup emerged as property owners began seeing signs of over-excavation and damage to driveways, septic tanks and retaining walls.

Zane said the Army Corps made her “feel like we’ve been made liars” at a July meeting when the Board of Supervisors urged the state government to do a better job of resolving complaints from people who said their properties were damaged in the cleanup.

In August, the California Office of Emergency Services, Cal OES, sent a letter lambasting the Army Corps for its “egregious oversight” of the “negligent” work done by its contractors.

“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,” then-director of Cal OES Mark Ghilarducci wrote in the Aug. 22 letter. “USACE (the Army Corps) allowed this to occur.”

Since then, Cal OES has spent $17.8 million to hire other contractors to fix some of the damage, mostly for overscraping, an agency spokesman said this week.

In Sonoma County, people reported problems at about 20 percent of the 3,800 burned properties handled by the government-run cleanup program, according to Michael Gossman, the deputy county administrator in charge of the county’s Office of Recovery and Resilience.

“We will leave you with a safe, clean site ready for rebuild — that was the promise that was made,” Gossman said. “That promise wasn’t kept for some people.”

The state has since backfilled soil at 379 properties, according to Gossman. For the remaining 343 properties, the state declined to step in, either because it determined the property wasn’t over-excavated or the work was too complex for its contractor. Gossman said that was the case for many hillside properties where the work required skilled engineering.

One of those properties belongs to 37-year-old Tim Gavin, who said he was told the state couldn’t repair the damage done at his Fountaingrove parcel because it is on a hill. Gavin, who is not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the cleanup crews removed retaining walls that should have remained and hauled away too much soil.

He’s spent more than $30,000 for additional soil and compaction work. The foundation was poured earlier this month.

“While I would like to fight to get the money back, it’s more of a headache to me and I simply want to forget about it,” Gavin said. “But I can’t. There are constant reminders of Oct. 9. I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in the last 1.5.”

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit will go before a judge, who will decide whether it can be classified as a class-action case.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.