Five months ago, Michael Ellison, the state official hired to shore up public confidence in stream and wetland restorations, gave a slide presentation on the evolution of the practice at a trade association conference. One of his slides pointed to the difficulty in getting these projects right. It showed $4 million largely paid to fix projects, with roughly a fifth of the money related to revisiting the work of one engineering firm.
Such information was no surprise to those in the room because the history of stream and wetland restoration is full of trial and error. But officials with that one firm, a prominent contractor in state government circles, did not like what they saw. A top state environmental official sided with their complaint.
Today, that information has been removed from the presentation, and Ellison has a new boss in an agency that he had been running by himself as deputy director.
Some who do business with the program, or monitor its performance, suspect both moves reflect the state’s unwillingness to admit problems within a restoration program that paves the way for billions of dollars in development. A three-part News & Observer series in April 2011 found millions of dollars had been spent fixing these projects.
“DENR management ought to be supporting the person who is reforming the program, not kowtowing to the firms that were responsible for the bad projects,” said John Preyer, a co-founder of Restoration Systems, a Raleigh-based builder of restored streams and wetlands.
Martin Doyle, a Duke University professor who has questioned the science behind stream restorations, said it didn’t make sense to promote (Suzanne) Klimek given the program had been operating with one person in charge for years. “I don’t know why you would bring in a new director to continue the work that Mike Ellison has started,” Doyle said. “If Mike Ellison has instituted changes that you like, then why don’t you make him director?”
Actions called unrelated
Ellison, who had been the leader of the Ecosystem Enhancement Program for more than a year, now reports to Suzanne Klimek, a longtime administrator in the program.
David Knight, the deputy environmental secretary who removed the offending slide and promoted Klimek, said the two actions are unrelated. He said the cost information needed to be removed because it wasn’t fair to the engineering firms identified. He also said he had planned to promote Klimek – before the offending presentation occurred – as acting director because there was too much work for one person to oversee.
She commutes to Raleigh from Asheville, where she had been working as a consultant. Her pay increased by 9.5 percent to $86,215.
“It was not because of this incident,” Knight said. “It was already in motion.”
Ellison, through an EEP spokesman, declined to be interviewed. Emails show Knight told Ellison that Knight would handle questions regarding Ellison’s presentation. The spokesman, Tad Boggs, later produced a statement from Ellison that was heavily edited, and excluded information related to the problems associated with stream restorations.
Ellison came to the EEP in late 2010, as the N&O was investigating long-standing problems with the ecosystem program. His EEP bio said he has more than 25 years experience in the field, and as a consultant and contractor completed more than “250 stream and wetland restoration projects and restored over 30,000 acres of forest and prairie habitats throughout the United States.”
Data provided to the N&O for its series showed the EEP and its predecessor agencies were struggling to produce restorations that held together and finished on schedule. More than 30 percent of the stream restorations had needed repairs, often costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Project records showed some of the issues stemmed from engineering firm designs that did not properly account for upstream development and other land conditions.
A delayed reaction
Email correspondence and interviews with other attendees of the stream conference show no one raised any objections to Ellison’s presentation when he gave it. But Knight later received complaints from Kimley-Horn & Associates, the engineering firm that had the highest amount of costs associated with its designs, and from Kathryn Sawyer Westcott, a lobbyist who represents the American Council of Engineering Companies of North Carolina.
Sawyer said Kimley-Horn and other members thought the slide was “incredibly disparaging” to their work. It lacked context in terms of what period of time the costs covered, whether the change orders were the fault of the engineering firms and how much total work the firms had done.
The slide showed close to $800,000 spent on change orders for projects designed by Kimley-Horn. Sawyer said Kimley-Horn has probably done the largest amount of restoration work among engineering firms for the program so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that its firm is tied to the highest amount in change order costs. Boggs said the change orders reflect 11 years of additional work performed by construction firms on stream and wetland projects.
Those who attended the presentation say Ellison did not disparage any firms. Ellison said in an email to Knight the slide illustrated how “crude design approaches” for streams can result in additional construction costs, but he added that some of the costs reflected in the slide were not the result of bad designs.
For more than a decade, the state has been selecting engineering firms for stream and wetland restoration work by drawing from a preferred list instead of putting the work out to bid. Kimley-Horn had been on that list from at least as far back as 2002 until last year, when the number of firms was cut to a decade-low 12.
These firms had been working under a construction method that often left the state holding the bag if projects went bad. After the N&O’s series, the state legislature passed a law that shifts most of the risk to the companies that do the work.
Ellison has been working to deploy the new law, improve financial accounting and devise new technical standards that better reflect scientific findings.
Preyer, Doyle and John Hutton, vice president of the Wildlands Engineering firm in Charlotte, said Ellison has made good strides on those goals.
“From an industry standpoint, he’s done a really good job with the reforms and in reaching out to the scientific community as well,” Hutton said.
They now worry that Ellison will be reined in. Knight said they shouldn’t be.
“I have a positive attitude toward Michael,” Knight said. “He’s done good work.”