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Metal against metal

Sparks flew among Medford Water Commission board members Wednesday, who clashed over claims they could save $525,000 by using steel pipe instead of iron for a new project.

"Everything that staff tells us, I'm questioning," said board Chairman Tom Hall during one of the more heated moments.

Larry Rains, manager of the Water Commission, responded, "Don't get mad at us because it seems a little contorted."

In the end, the five-member board stuck with its decision to award a $4.2 million contract to Moore Excavation Inc. of Portland to build a 10,109-foot iron ductile line from the Robert A. Duff Water Treatment Plant near White City. The water line will be 48 inches in diameter, the largest diameter in the Water Commission's system.

Moore Excavation submitted a change order on Nov. 3, showing that it could cut costs by using steel produced in Oregon instead of ductile iron made in Alabama. Steel is routinely used by many water municipalities around the country, and Moore Excavation provided data to show the steel had similar specifications as iron.

Despite the debate over the issue, board members let their earlier decision stand, and the Water Commission will instruct Moore Excavation to use iron pipe.

Board members struggled to make sense of conflicting reports. Staff members and a private engineer questioned the merits of steel pipe.

At the same time, board members saw an engineer's stamp on the Moore change order that indicated that steel met the specifications for the pipeline.

Board member Leigh Johnson said the Moore change order made him question an earlier decision to go with iron.

"I am now having second thoughts with the information I read," he said. "This is a whole new ball game."

In addition, he said a 100-year warranty on the steel pipe made that an attractive option.

Mike Thornton of Thornton Engineering in Jacksonville said it was difficult as an independent engineer to say whether one type of pipe is better than another.

He said the specifications for the project require the pipe to handle sustained pressures of 100 pounds per square inch, but noted there could be occasional spikes. He indicated iron could sustain higher pressures than steel.

"We have no skin in the game as to what kind of pipe you use," he said.

Because the project was engineered with iron in mind, Thornton said he couldn't say whether the commission would save $525,000 on the project by going with steel.

Moore based its change order savings in part on information from sales representatives of Northwest Pipe Company in Portland, which would benefit financially if the water commission chose steel pipe.

Board vice president Jason Anderson said, "We've got a biased salesperson saying it's going to save money."

He said trying to make a decision about the two pipes is like comparing apples and oranges.

But board member Johnson said the change order was sent by Moore Excavation.

"Why would a reputable contractor do this, if he didn't believe it?" he said.

Eric Johnson, principal engineer with the Water Commission, replied, "Where's our reputable contractor today?"

Apparently, Moore Excavation wasn't invited to the meeting, board members discovered.

Johnson said his analysis indicates maintenance on steel to protect it from corrosion would cost $1 million over the life on the pipeline.

Hall questioned why ductile iron didn't have the same kind of corrosion protection, and Johnson said it wasn't required.

Hall said the commission staff wasn't being open-minded about considering the merits of steel. He said the $525,000 price reduction included a system for protecting the steel from corrosion.

"No, it's not," replied Johnson, who appeared frustrated at times during the discussion.

After the meeting, Hall questioned the staff analysis that it would cost $1 million over the life of the pipeline to maintain an anti-corrosion system. He noted that even if that were the case, the compounded savings of $525,000 over the 100-year lifespan of the pipe would be far in excess of the added cost.

Several times during the meeting, Hall made his feelings known about the way the water commission was handling the issue.

"Disgusted," he said.