Wildfire Cleanup Firms Face Class Action for Falsifying Data

(CN) – Northern California residents filed a federal class action Tuesday against beleaguered environmental engineering firm Tetra Tech, alleging the company falsely reported to the government that the properties affected by last year’s wildfires had been properly cleaned and that no contaminated soil remained.

The 22-page complaint, filed in federal court in San Francisco, claims Tetra Tech and AshBritt Environmental removed “excessive amounts of soil” and structures unaffected by the fires; destroyed property such as sidewalks, driveways and septic tanks; and lied to government agencies and property owners that “land had been cleaned” and tests that showed soils were uncontaminated when contaminated soil and debris remained untouched.

The homeowners claim that the two firms took those actions as part of a conspiracy to increase the amount they would be paid for their clean-up efforts. The plaintiffs say the companies excavated more soil than what was needed due to receiving payments of between $200 and $300 per ton of debris.

“Defendants routinely removed excessive amounts of soil, up to six feet in depth at a time, far more than was necessary to dispose of contaminants, without performing sampling to determine whether the soil was contaminated,” the complaint states.

The lawsuit also cites a letter sent to the Army Corps of Engineers from the director of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, describing “unacceptable” work as part of the clean-up process, including damage to the homeowners’ properties.

“After extensive on-site inspections, the issues we have discovered thus far include, but are not limited to, obvious over-scraping of properties, severe damage to driveway and sidewalks, and damage to wells and septic tanks,” the plaintiffs said the letter says. “Additionally, more than a dozen sites that were deemed cleared by [the Army Corps of Engineers] have recently been discovered to contain contaminated ash and fire debris.”

The complaint also claims that the companies falsely told government agencies that soil samples tested as being uncontaminated when “either no testing for contamination had occurred on the properties or results of testing for contamination were falsified.”

Plaintiffs allege that the two firms have worked together to defraud the government since at least 2015 over numerous clean-up projects they’ve worked together on across the country.

“The fundamental goal of the enterprise was to maximize the profits of AshBritt and Tetra Tech by over-excavating on subject properties and unnecessarily removing non-debris material without testing for contamination,” the complaint states. “Defendants communicated with each other via daily mail and e-mail correspondence in furtherance of their scheme to increase profits by over-excavating soil, needlessly removing debris, overseeing the destruction of Plaintiffs’ property, and falsely claiming test results from contaminated properties showed the properties were clean.”  

The lawsuit comes one month after the Justice Department sued Tetra Tech’s subsidiary for the work it did in cleaning up former naval base Hunters Point in San Francisco, claiming it submitted at least $58 million in false invoices and fabricated radiation data about the site. Two company managers pleaded guilty last year to falsifying data.

Despite the DOJ lawsuit, California officials awarded Tetra Tech with a $250 million dollar contract to test potentially contaminated soils from the wildfires, despite public concerns about the firm. Officials with CalRecycle said the contract was given to Tetra Tech due to its success in seven other debris clean-up contracts.

The plaintiffs are suing the companies for racketeering and fraud, among other charges. They are represented by Robert Arns of San Francisco.

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