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Baker City sues Anderson Perry over wastewater lagoon problems

BAKER CITY — The city of Baker City has filed a civil lawsuit against a La Grande engineering firm and one of its employees, alleging the company’s design of the city’s leak-prone wastewater storage lagoon was defective.

The city, represented by attorney Dan Van Thiel of Baker City, is seeking $81,996 from Anderson Perry & Associates.

That’s the amount the city’s contractor on the lagoon project, Gyllenberg Construction of Baker City, requested for repairs the company made to the lagoon’s liner, which was installed in the fall of 2021 but leaked when the lagoon began to fill in June 2022.

Van Thiel filed the suit June 4 in Baker County Circuit Court.

The Herald has left requests for comment with city and Anderson Perry & Associates officials.

According to the lawsuit, the city has contacted a “design professional” who has “similar credentials” to the Anderson Perry engineer who worked on the lagoon design.

The city’s witness is willing to testify if there is a trial, according to the suit.

That person, the lawsuit states, “is qualified to testify as to the standard of professional skill and care applicable to the alleged facts, is available and willing to testify that the alleged conduct of the design professional (from Anderson Perry) failed to meet the standard of professional skill and care ordinarily provided by other design professionals with similar credentials, experience and expertise and practicing under the same or similar circumstances.”

The lawsuit outlines the history of the lagoon’s construction and leaks.

The lagoon is on a 51-acre parcel the city bought in 2019 at the eastern edge of Baker Valley, just south of the Medical Springs Highway.

The lagoon is part of a $5.7 million project that includes a 7-mile pipeline that connects the city’s network of four smaller lagoons, which are about a mile north of Baker City and were built in the early 1960s, with the new lagoon.

The city borrowed the money for the project from the state and will repay the loan over 30 years with an interest rate of 1.36%.

According to the lawsuit, the city contracted with Anderson Perry & Associates to design the lagoon, and Brad Baird, a senior engineer with the company, supervised the work.

Baird is also named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

READ IT: Baker City lawsuit

He was also the project engineer for the Treasure Valley Reload Center in Malheur County. Anderson Perry’s contract with Malheur County Development Corp. was terminated last fall.

Gyllenberg Construction installed the high-density polyethylene liner in the lagoon between September and November 2021. The company’s subcontractor was Northwest Linings, according to the lawsuit.

When the city started to fill the lagoon in mid-June 2022, humps in the liner — known as “whales” — appeared, indicating possible leaks.

In June 2023 the city started to empty the lagoon so engineers could examine the liner.

In late September 2023, Northwest Linings repaired sections of the liner.

After the city started refilling the lagoon, whales again appeared in the liner.

Gyllenberg Construction requested $81,996 for the repairs on Nov. 9, 2023, according to the lawsuit.

In January 2024, Joyce Bornstedt, the city’s public works director, said that a warranty for the liner expired Dec. 8, 2023, and that Gyllenberg Construction was responsible for the cost of repairs.

Also in January, Brandon Mahon, an engineer with Anderson Perry & Associates, said the company had worked on other lagoon projects that used the same liner material that was installed in Baker City, including in Hermiston and Nyssa, but without the problems that have plagued the Baker City project.

Mahon said the liner material comes in rolls that are laid out in the lagoon. The sections are joined by heating the material to create a “double-fusion weld” that ideally results in a connection that’s stronger than the liner material itself.

When the lagoon was emptied for inspection last year, Mahon said the repairs focused on areas where the liner had leaked.

When the lagoon was partially refilled after the repairs, “whales” reappeared, Mahon said.

Bornstedt said in January that more inspections were needed to determine whether the whales that appeared after the liner repairs last fall were due to some welds not being repaired, or some other factor.

She said she is concerned that some parts of the liner “have been compromised,” possibly as a result of the attempted repairs, which could require the entire liner to be replaced.

Lagoon’s purpose

The lagoon and pipeline, which comprise the most expensive wastewater project in the city in more than two decades, was prompted by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) telling city officials more than a decade ago that eventually the agency would not allow the city to pipe treated wastewater into the Powder River.

That’s how the city has disposed of treated wastewater from its four older lagoons, which are near the river, for more than half a century.

DEQ told city officials that treated wastewater could promote algae blooms and otherwise pollute the river.

The new lagoon, which is 20 feet deep compared with the existing lagoons’ depth of 6 to 8 feet, also increases the city’s capacity to store wastewater, Bornstedt said. The pipeline allows the city to move wastewater between the new and old lagoons.

Rather than piping wastewater into the river, the city plans to use water from the new lagoon to irrigate nonfood crops on private land near the lagoon.

DEQ has denied the city’s application to use wastewater for irrigation on some of that land due to a shallow groundwater table and soils that don’t readily absorb water.

Since the leaks were detected in 2022 and the new lagoon drained to facilitate repairs — the water was pumped via the new pipeline to the old lagoons — the city has been storing wastewater in the old lagoons and continuing to release treated water into the river.

The city still has a permit from DEQ to do so.

The Enterprise contributed reporting to this story.