Asleep at the wheel

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 3, 2012

Throughout the saga, state highway work for DiGregorio went on uninterrupted — as it has for Rocchio and Liddell. But the same records of trouble, in a different state, might have cost these firms work.

Virginia's Department of Transportation, like its counterparts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, requires virtually all highway contractors to go through an extensive, in this case biennial, prequalification process.

Each contractor winds up with a prequalification score — 70 percent of it rooted in past performance of department contracts and 30 percent in workplace safety history. Failure to meet a certain overall score — and certain thresholds on safety, in particular — can disqualify contractors or limit the types of jobs they can bid on. A firm with "conditional" prequalification, for instance, can only vie for jobs valued at less than $1 million.

Of course, these prequalification programs are only as good as their implementation. Last year, after two immigrant workers died of apparent asphyxiation in a manhole in Durham, North Carolina, a local TV station reported that the state's Department of Transportation had given the men's employer an "A" on safety — despite a history of serious OSHA violations and a previous fatality.

But Rhode Island doesn't even have a system for scoring workplace safety records. In fact, it doesn't require firms to disclose those records at all. None other than John Rocchio, president of John Rocchio Corporation, seems to be in favor of a change.

When the Phoenix asked him if workplace safety should have any bearing on a firm's ability to win state contracts, he said, "I think it should . . . I think a company that is consistently in trouble should be looked at."

Environmental disclosure is, at least, a part of the vetting process. But it's quite limited in scope. State bidding forms ask if a prospective contractor or any of its principals have "been fined more than $5000" by the state's Department of Environmental Management for "a single violation" of "Rhode Island Wetlands law." Any violation not involving wetlands — say, Cardi dropping soil laced with carcinogens on middle school grounds — would not be covered.

And because the question focuses on DEM fines, in particular, it wouldn't capture the $55,000 settlement Cardi reached with the US Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 after years of leaching caustic chemicals from its Warwick concrete and asphalt plant into a drainage ditch that discharges into Three Ponds Brook, the Pawtuxet River, and ultimately Narragansett Bay.

The Massachusetts prequalification application, by contrast, requires contractors to disclose any violation, in the last five years, of "any state or federal law regulating the environment."

Channing Jones, of Environment Rhode Island, says the Ocean State should follow the example of its northerly neighbor, imposing "stronger and broader requirements" for disclosure of environmental violations.

Daniel Majcher, a lawyer who works closely with the state's purchasing department in his role as the Chafee Administration's assistant director of special projects, said, "We're always looking at ways we can do things better."

But expanding labor and environmental disclosure does not appear to be a priority at the moment. When the Phoenix asked Lorraine Hynes, the state's purchasing agent, why the state requires such a narrow set of disclosures, she said, simply, "it's been like that for a number of years."

She also suggested that other agencies, like DEM or the Department of Labor and Training, might play a role in flagging troubled contractors. But DEM spokeswoman Gail Mastrati told the Phoenix that responsibility for vetting contractors lies solely with the purchasing department.

Communication between agencies on contractors' records appears limited. And there's even some intragovernmental friction from time to time.

Recall that Cardi hauled the soil to Ponaganset Middle School from a section of the Route 195 relocation project, which was overseen by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Before the relocation began, DEM and DOT entered into a memorandum of understanding acknowledging that the project included land that had been used for industrial activities and calling for careful handling of the soil.

So when Cardi, working under contract with the DOT, transported untested dirt to the middle school grounds, DEM assessed the $251,546 fine not just on Cardi, but on DOT, too.

Both entities are appealing the fine.

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