Winnipeg lawsuit over water treatment plant dries up after lawyer misses deadline

A lawsuit over Winnipeg's water-treatment plant has evaporated after the city took too long to file a statement of claim, depriving taxpayers of a chance to recover up to $20 million in costs - and costing the job of a senior city lawyer.

City can no longer attempt to reclaim up to $20M from contractors; senior lawyer departs after 'huge error'

Winnipeg CAO Doug McNeil said a city lawyer made a huge error by allowing too much time to elapse before a legal action started over the city's water treatment plant. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

A lawsuit over Winnipeg's water-treatment plant has evaporated after the city took too long to file a statement of claim, depriving taxpayers of a chance to recover up to $20 million — and costing a city lawyer their job.

In 2015, the city went to court against consulting firm AECOM, PCL Construction and eight other companies over leaks, heaving roofs, failing generators and explosions at the Winnipeg Water Treatment Plant, a $300-million facility located in the RM of Springfield, east of the Red River Floodway.

The state-of-the-art treatment plant, which opened in 2009, upgraded Winnipeg's water quality through the addition of a series of additional purification measures, including ultraviolet radiation and biologically active carbon filtration, that remove algae, micro-organisms and potential pathogens such as cryptosporidium.

According to a lawsuit filed in December 2015, some of the buildings at the water-treatment complex began failing within three years due to what the city alleged were design deficiencies and structural problems.​

Winnipeg chief administrative officer Doug McNeil said the city hoped to recover somewhere between $6 million and $20 million if the legal action succeeded.

Instead, the lawsuit was adjourned last week, when defendants pointed out the city failed to launch the legal action within a six-year timeframe allowed for this sort of legal action.

"We missed the limitation period," McNeil said Monday in an interview. "In order to file a statement of claim in this instance, you have to file within six years of the cause or the deficiency.

"What happened is one of our lawyers didn't do the research into when that period started and they missed the six-year deadline."

Work on Winnipeg's $300-million water-treatment plant began in 2005 and was completed in 2009. The city alleges problems emerged three years later. (City of Winnipeg)
​McNeil said the city now has no recourse to attempt to recover any funds from the contractors. He also said the lawyer on the file no longer has a job with the city.

"We take these matters very seriously and we deal with each situation as they arise. I felt this was serious enough that the employee who made this huge error is no longer with the City of Winnipeg."

McNeil said he could not identify the lawyer in question because the dismissal is a human-resources issue.

Water quality unaffected

The city still plans on repairing the plant and must allocate funds in future budgets, he said. In the meantime, the plant continues to produce clean drinking water, mainly because the deficiencies did not materialize in the most important buildings in the facility, McNeil said.

"In no way do these deficiencies affect the quality of our water," the CAO said.

The City of Winnipeg filed the lawsuit on Dec. 7, 2015. Court documents alleged several problems surfaced at the state-of-the art facility when it opened in 2009.
A lawsuit over Winnipeg's water-treatment plant has evaporated after the city took too long to file a statement of claim, depriving taxpayers of a chance to recover up to $20 million — and costing a city lawyer their job. 1:55

The city alleged roofing failures in the main building, the plant's sodium hypochlorite facility and the chemical-storage building tied to "significant heaving of the roofing system" and leakage.

The lawsuit also claimed two explosions occurred in the plant's sodium hypochlorite facility. The first explosion occurred during an "acid washing procedure" in August 2012 and a second occurred during a routine plumbing repair in February 2013, court documents alleged.

Fearing for employee safety, the City of Winnipeg now purchases sodium hypochlorite — a compound that creates liquid bleach, when combined with water — rather than producing the disinfecting agent itself, court documents alleged.

The city continues to ship in the chemical, McNeil said.

The court documents also alleged a catastrophic failure occurred in August 2013, when a generator seized due to "stray electrical currents."

Lawyer for defendants pleased

Richard Literovich, the lawyer representing defendant AECOM, could not be reached for comment about the end of the lawsuit.

Jonathan Woolley, the lawyer for PCL constructors, declined to comment.

Stuart Blake, the lawyer for fellow defendants Bird Construction and Oakwood Roofing, said while he could not comment on the way the legal action ended, "we're obviously pleased with the outcome."

City councillors who agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement were briefed about the end of the legal action during a closed-door meeting. Mayor Brian Bowman said last week he could not comment.

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Before joining CBC Manitoba, Bartley Kives spent most of his career in journalism at the Winnipeg Free Press, covering politics, music, food, the environment and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.

With files from Cameron Maclean and Sean Kavanagh