ALBANY, Ga. -- Albany City Commissioners grudgingly agreed Tuesday to pay Oxford Construction Co. "no more than $74,000" in sewer enterprise funds to clear grout that may have been accidentally spilled in city storm sewer lines during a state Department of Transportation-contracted project carried out by Oxford.
Public Works officials said a buildup of grout in storm sewer lines on Jefferson Street in the heart of downtown Albany caused localized flooding during heavy February rains in an area of the city that doesn't typically flood. An investigation by city Engineering and Public Works personnel showed the buildup of grout in the sewer lines may have been the culprit that caused February flooding on the 400 block of Flint Avenue.
Oxford was the subcontractor on a nearby DOT job in which its workers installed a rail crossing arm at Jefferson and Roosevelt in January. Part of that job involved filling an abandoned brick sewer with grout. A few weeks later, with the heavy February rains, the Flint Avenue flooding occurred, forcing Public Works to manually pump water out of the area.
"We were able to control the (flooding) with a 6-inch pump, but we were concerned that additional rains would be more than our pumps could handle," Public Works Director Phil Roberson said Tuesday. "We traced the problem to a 42-inch sewer pipe on Jefferson that had grout in it. We were concerned about the safety of the citizens and their property, so we asked Oxford if they could remove the grout.
"The cost of the project changed after we realized the scope of the work that had to be done. They couldn't use heavy machinery in that confined an area, plus we were concerned about the integrity of the sewer pipe, so they essentially broke up the grout and got it out one bucket at a time."
Ward VI Commissioner Tommie Postell's initial reaction to the request for funding was to question Oxford's work on the project.
"My intelligence leads me to believe there's something shady going on here," Postell said. "A company puts too much grout in one project, and now they're asking for almost $80,000 -- three times what they got for the original job -- to clean the grout out.
"It seems asinine to hire the same people who fouled the project up."
Engineering Director Bruce Maples told Postell there was no way to know whether it was Oxford's work that actually blocked the storm sewer lines, and Roberson said the city would have forfeited any chance of recovering funding for the cleanup from DOT if it had used another company.
"The contract here was between the city and DOT," the Public Works director said. "Oxford was the subcontractor of record on the job, which was still an open project. The city had no choice; it was either self-perform or work with the company of record."
Oxford Vice President Melvin Edwards said Tuesday both city and state DOT officials were kept abreast of all work undertaken on the job, and that all work was completed to standards approved by both.
"I felt we did a good job of getting all applicable parties on board before we started any work on the project," Edwards said. "We were very concerned about this project from the get-go because of its location. We're always on pins and needles when we do work in that area (because of aging infrastructure).
"Just the thought that possibly something we had done caused a problem for the city of Albany didn't sit well with us. We may not ever know what actually caused the flooding, but as soon as Phil called us, we responded. We wanted to help because it was the city, the city our company resides in. We just regret that this happened."
Edwards said the job ended up being unlike any he'd seen during his career in the construction industry.
"Those guys on Alan Cross' crew did a commendable, an amazing job," he said. "They were working in once-in-a-lifetime conditions: breaking up grout in pipes that were 48 to 36 inches in diameter -- that was their work space -- on concrete in water. They stayed with it and got the job done, they conquered a very difficult task.
"I have to say, though, that I understand some of the commissioners' top-of-the-head response when they didn't know the whole story. I respect the fact that they're trying to look after the city's interests. We've always had a great working relationship with the city of Albany; they're one of our best customers."
Roberson, too, commended Oxford workers for cleaning out the sewer line under adverse conditions.
"Those guys are working in tight quarters 15 to 20 feet underground, and they can only get the (grout) out one bucket at a time," he said. "I think they did an excellent job for the city."
City Manager James Taylor said that while the excess grout that is the presumed cause of the Flint Avenue flooding may have come from Oxford's work on the railroad crossing, any refunding of city money will most likely have to come from DOT.
"This was GDOT's project," he said. "We'll try to get GDOT to pay any costs associated with the cleanup."
City Attorney Nathan Davis said the state had not taken responsibility for the flooding issue.
"A simple contract of $25,000 has turned into 300 percent more," Davis said. "So far, though, no one from DOT or Oxford has been willing to talk about it. You would think they would have stepped to the plate and handled it."