“Clean House” says former Birmingham Water Works engineer who claims utility is wasting ratepayers’ money

Published: Oct. 4, 2022 at 4:20 PM CDT|Updated: Oct. 4, 2022 at 10:08 PM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - WBRC broke the story last week that the Birmingham Water Works Board staff is recommending the utility raise your rates an average of more than 8% next year. Now, we’re hearing new concerns from a former water works engineer about how the utility may spend your money.

“There’s a lot of people that are being hired because they know somebody,” says a former BWWB engineer we’ll call “Jim” to protect his anonymity. Jim worked for the utility until recently, and says what started as a good work environment began to change when Assistant General Manager Derrick Murphy was hired in 2019.

“We had a lot of people that were capable of doing a lot of the stuff, a lot of the work, but their hands were being tied by Derrick mainly because he would just want to give the work to somebody else, a different contractor,” claims “Jim”, who also says he and coworkers began to feel left out of much of the decision-making.

“They were very skittish about those things because of Derrick. Because they asked him a question and they felt like they were talked in ways that were inferior than he was, they would quickly got shot down for the ideas they had, and some of these ideas were ideas to save money for the waterworks.”

“So they would present money-saving ideas in favor of contracting them out to other outside contractors which ends up costing the ratepayers more money?,” asked On Your Side Investigator Jonathan Hardison.

“Right,” Jim replied. “A lot of the stuff was done to save something that has failed, instead of spending a little bit of money to have a plan for the upkeep of some of the assets they have. Instead, they would just wait until something was completely broken in an emergency, then they would have to spend tons more money to fix that issue that could’ve been prevented.”

WBRC first reported this summer on a major leak near the US Steel facility that sources tell us had been leaking 100′s of thousands of gallons of raw water for years, and it was only after we asked about the leak that the utility’s board in September approved spending more than $2 million to repair it.

The utility also has more than 600 miles of galvanized steel or cast iron pipe, with more than 100 of those miles more than 90 years old. That’s only 15% of the system’s pipeline, but responsible for almost 70% of the leaks.

At the current rate of replacement, it will be another 39 years minimum before the water works replaces it all.

“No, I don’t think they’re spending the money wisely,” said “Jim.” “And that comes from not just the board’s fault, but from every single level of BWWB.”

Murphy does not have a Professional Engineering license, something we asked him about during a visit to a BWWB construction site.

“Do you have a PE and if so in what?,” Hardison asked. “Well very interesting. My division is 80% of a skilled workforce. I have the pleasure of being from Birmingham, from Ensley. I went on and decided I want to make a difference so I went to UAB and obtained my undergrad and masters in construction management and engineering and also my civil engineering degree. So my knowledge level and experience afforded me the chance to be put in this position, especially over our workers.”

“Right, back to my question...does your job description require a PE?” Hardison asked. “No it does not,” Murphy replied.

“And do you have a PE?,” said Hardison.

“No it doesn’t require that,” said Murphy.

“Is it unusual to have a non-PE in your role supervising over 4,000 miles of pipe and a lot of PE’s who work for you?,” said Hardison.

“Well again, my workforce is 80% skilled laborers. So this job entails working in the ground, pipefitters. We have some engineers on staff, but many directors around, where you’re dealing with infrastructure have all type of skill sets,” Murphy said.

So what does “Jim” think needs to be done to better serve you, the customer?

“I believe it’s just clean house,” recommends “Jim”. “So, from management all the way down, who’s working there who’s contributing to doing a good job? And whoever’s not they need to go.

We reached out to the Birmingham Water Works to give them a chance to respond to our reporting, and they sent us a statement from General Manager Michael Johnson:

Each day, we carry the serious responsibility of continuously providing pure and plentiful drinking water to more than 770,000 customers in five counties, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We are totally devoted to this mission. We are an award-winning water utility company, and we operate within the framework of the Effective Utility Management system established by the American Water Works Association. Our entire management team understands our mission and is committed to executing it every day to ensure effective and efficient operations for our customers. Derrick Murphy, who is our Engineering & Maintenance Division AGM, manages the largest division at our company and is well qualified with more than 20 years of industry experience. All projects within this division and across the company are continually evaluated to determine how engineering, professional or contractor/consulting services should be handled, whether internally or referred to an outside firm (as outlined by the Alabama Bid Law). Our systems are large and complex with four treatment plants, four raw water plants, two sludge facilities and more than 4,000 miles of water main lines, just to name a few of our systems that we manage daily. We spend millions on maintenance to address asset breaks or damages across our systems in order to provide excellent service to our customers. We do this with the highest level of expertise within each of our divisions. We have full confidence that all of our leaders act each day solely in the interest of our mission of serving our customers.”

See more 6 On Your Side Investigates stories on Birmingham Water Works here.

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