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.