A jovial Kirk Caldwell greeted the media on the banks of the Ala Wai Canal in late May to announce a major development for the popular and controversial waterway.

The so-called “black noodle,” a 5,135 foot-long sewer pipe that sat on the bottom of the canal for years, was finally on its way out. Caldwell cracked jokes with the press and even pretended to push a city contractor into the Ala Wai’s murky waters for a photo op.

Honolulu’s mayor had reason to be happy; he was putting an end to a disgusting chapter for the city. The enormous pipe had been hastily installed in 2006 after a force main break caused the city to channel millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Ala Wai Canal and polluting Waikiki’s beaches. It may even have contributed to the death of a man after he fell into the water and contracted a flesh-eating bacteria.

In removing the pipe, which was a temporary bypass, the city successfully installed a new backup force main to prevent future sewage overflows. In doing so, the city demonstrated that it was staying ahead of schedule on its $5 billion sewer rehabilitation settlement with the federal government.

Everything seemed good. But a legal fight brewing in federal court is raising questions about the integrity of the new six-foot-in-diameter pipe that snakes under the Ala Wai.

Here are the basics: The Frank Coluccio Construction Co. installed a pipe that it believes to be substandard. The Seattle-based company wants to be absolved of any blame should the force main fail, and it is seeking more than $10 million from the city for delays and damages resulting from various issues allegedly caused by having to use that pipe.

“We’re not going to be the ones on the hook if it doesn’t perform,” said Scott Batterman, the Honolulu attorney who is representing Frank Coluccio Construction. “We told the city we’ll put it in but that we have issues with it.”

A Faulty Pipe

The entire lawsuit stems from U.S. Composite Pipe South LLC, which is the company that provided the fiberglass sewer line, suing Frank Coluccio Construction because it did not pay up for the $3.6 million pipe that curves underneath the canal.

Frank Coluccio Construction then filed a counterclaim against the pipe company, the city and Westchester Fire Insurance Company, as a means of recouping costs that the business says it lost as a result of having to use a force main manufactured by the German company Meyer Rohr + Schacht.

The city hired Frank Coluccio Construction in 2009 to drill and install the new force main for a price of $37 million, which was about $13 million less than the next lowest bidder. The project, which has since increased in price to more than $40 million, was split into five phases with the most difficult being the stretch that went underneath the Ala Wai Canal since it involved curving the pipe in an “s” shape.

Initially, the construction company wanted to use the Al-Watani Factory for Fiberglass Company in Kuwait to provide the pipe for the Ala Wai segment. But Frank Coluccio Construction’s counterclaim states that a representative from that company raised “serious concerns” about Al-Watani’s manufacturing process and failure to honor warranties. There was also a suspicion that the business had provided false information to the city about its qualifications.

The counterclaim says that Frank Coluccio Construction spent the next two years trying to find a new pipe supplier for the city, but that city officials continually rejected the company’s suggestions. Eventually, the city decided to purchase the fiberglass line from U.S. Composite Pipe South, which ultimately supplied the materials from Meyer Rohr + Schact.

Frank Coluccio Construction also claims this new pipe didn’t meet the specifications that the company had agreed to when accepting the contract, and that it required the city to revise its own standards on the project downward to gain approval for a change order for the pipe.

As a result, the company says that it encountered difficulties in construction that damaged its drilling machinery and added to its costs. For example, the company claims that the pipe “did not in fact comport with standards of proper workmanship,” and that “sharp protrusions” damaged a rubber seal and resulted in flooding of its multimillion dollar tunneling equipment.

That’s not all. The company insists that delays on the project altered the timing of another city force main project along Ala Moana. On that project, Frank Coluccio Construction has a $116 million contract that involves drilling underground holes and installing more pipes.

According to Frank Coluccio Construction’s counterclaim, the city refused to grant the company’s extensions on this project, causing the contractor to “accelerate” its work schedule, which it says costs more money.

Batterman said the company is now looking to buy a new underground tunneling drill.

Will the Pipe Hold Up?

Taken as a whole, Frank Coluccio Construction is seeking more than $10 million from the city in its counterclaim. Almost half of this amount is based on the “acceleration costs” related to its Ala Moana project, and another $3.4 is due to delays. About $2.2 million is related to the flooding of its tunneling equipment.

But the most important issue for the people of Honolulu is likely whether the new pipe under the Ala Wai risks failing if it is required to handle heavy flows of sewage the next time Honolulu experiences rainfall as extreme as that of 2006.

Batterman said that when the city lowered its standards for the pipe, it ended up with a final product that went through less rigorous pressure testing. In fact, he said the pipe that Frank Coluccio Construction installed in the ground wasn’t originally designed as a pressure class pipe and that it is more suitable for gravity systems. “It’s being used in an application in which it was not originally designed,” Batterman said. “But if the city’s engineers and Meyers engineers are willing to go on the line and say it will work, then okay. Engineers sometimes disagree, but we as a company cannot make that statement.”

He also noted that just because the specifications for the pipe were modified, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the pipe will fail. After all, infrastructure projects are often “over-engineered” to withstand unexpected loads.

“We’re not rooting to have things go bad,” Batterman said. “We hope that the pipe lasts fifty years or even one hundred years.”

Honolulu attorney Erik Eike, on the other hand, considers the entire counterclaim to be overblown, and a way for Frank Coluccio Construction to squeeze money out of the city for mistakes that the business made on its own.

Eike represents U.S. Composite Pipe South, and he said the piping under the Ala Wai Canal is solidly engineered. It was tested in Germany before making its way to Honolulu, he said, and after it was installed, it went through even more testing.

“The allegations regarding the pipe are completely unfounded,” Eike said. “The Coluccio counterclaim is largely an attempt to try to recover costs that we believe were somewhat self-inflicted.”

The attorney for U.S. Composite Pipe South said that the flooding of 2006 wasn’t caused by the pipe, but rather by a mistake made by the construction crews that were installing the sewer line. More specifically, he noted that the water seal was already leaking before any piping had been inserted through it.

The Honolulu Mayor’s Office did not answer Civil Beat’s questions on Wednesday regarding the lawsuit and counterclaim.

Next month, the Honolulu City Council is expected to consider hiring the private law firm Kobayashi, Sugita and Goda, LLP to help in the litigation. The price tag is currently set at a threshold of $70,000. In particular, the city must defend itself from claims of negligence and breach of contract.

Read the entire counterclaim here:

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