WASILLA -- State officials have charged a Big Lake contractor with safety and wage violations for its work last year on a troubled, federally-funded salmon restoration project near Trapper Creek.
The contractor, Tew's Inc., is well known in the Valley for its pink-painted equipment and its Mat-Su Borough road contracts and garbage hauling.
The state citations are the latest in a long history of problems for Tew's. Security cameras set up by the borough to watch the salmon-restoration job site captured a couple of workers drinking beer in midafternoon and another giving a child a ride on a big front-end loader without strapping the child into the seat. Neither set of photos, provided to Alaska Dispatch News in response to a public records request, figured into the citations.
The state accused Tew's of numerous violations that occurred during work last year, including unpaid wages and unsafe digging practices. The borough, which contracted Tew's to perform the work for about $664,000, also faces fines stemming from the safety citations.
Borough officials say the restoration project, installing three culverts on remote Oilwell Road, represented a more complex job than usual for Tew's.
The company declined several requests for comment.
The Oilwell Road job is part of a broad effort to restore Mat-Su salmon runs by replacing culverts that block fish from reaching historic spawning areas with new culverts that permit the fish to move freely. The borough last year selected Tew's to install the culverts on tributaries of Moose and Kroto creeks as part of a larger federally funded project. The company put in the lowest of four bids.
Oilwell Road runs for 30 mostly gravel miles into the wild country west of the Susitna River. It provides access to hundreds of properties, many recreational cabins, and is heavily used in fall during moose hunting season and by mining and oil and gas companies.
Tew's wrapped up work on the Oilwell Road project in late October. The work was marred by complaints from residents and borough staff about speeding trucks and improperly licensed drivers, according to numerous interviews and documents obtained by Alaska Dispatch News through a series of records requests.
The Alaska Wage and Hour Administration on March 19 notified Tew's that it owed more than $36,000 in back wages and per diem pay to workers.
Alaska Occupational Safety and Health in late March cited both Tew's and the borough for eight violations including workers not wearing hard hats while working under a nearly 3,000-pound culvert pipe and working in a trench without cave-in protection.
Tew's is owned by Big Lake residents Clayton "Mokie" Tew and Roberta Tew, his wife. In 2010, the couple started the nonprofit Valley Mover bus service that ferries commuters between the Valley and Anchorage in trademark pink coaches. The company's pink trucks and snowplows are a familiar sight on Valley roads.
Roberta Tew said "no, thank you" when contacted last week for comment. She said she couldn't provide a response.
"It's a tough situation to deal with," said the borough's longtime purchasing officer, Russ Krafft, who administers contracts like the one for the culvert installations and has worked with Tew's for a decade. "I like Mokie; he's a nice guy. I like Roberta. It's just Oilwell (Road) was a problem for them."
Borough faces penalties
Alaska Occupational Safety and Health is proposing $4,050 in safety penalties for Tew's but more than $12,000 for the borough, according to notices issued in late March.
Tew's can challenge the penalties and scheduled an informal conference with OSH this week, according to Gray Mitchell, director of the state Division of Labor Standards and Safety.
The borough is being cited because it had employees on the scene exposed to the same hazards, Bailey said.
The borough hasn't decided whether to challenge its penalties, said public works director Terry Dolan.
As for the wage case, the state will probably issue a new notice to Tew's reducing the claim of owed back pay after the company provided canceled checks showing workers got paid, Mitchell said. The new amount will be in "the thousands," he said.
Disruptions at almost every turn
The borough files show the company complained that borough officials interfered with its work and was responsible for delays.
But borough construction inspector Paula Caywood said she spent two or three times the hours she normally does overseeing the Oilwell Road project. Problems referenced in her job diary included wrong-sized fill, repeated reminders to Roberta Tew that truck drivers needed commercial licenses, and mistakes made installing water diversions during culvert installation.
Roberta Tew, in an early September letter to the borough, blamed some of the company's problems on the borough's "continued overzealous inspection efforts and disruptions at almost every turn on this project" that "continue to cause delays that entitle us to additional time and money."
"We continue to make every effort to speed the work along," Tew wrote, "and would appreciate some cooperation in that regard."
Multiple contracts, poor compliance
Tew's had more than $1.6 million in borough contracts last year, including the salmon culvert project, the Big Lake area road-service contract and a waste-hauling contract.
The company also has the worst compliance record of any company with borough contracts to maintain roads, according to borough records. Documents show more than 50 notices from the borough regarding problems on Tew's contracts between 2001 and 2014.
Given the company's compliance history, how did Tew's get the Oilwell Road project?
Borough code requires the low bidder to get a contract unless officials can prove it is not capable of doing the job, officials say.
The borough must consider past performance on similar contracts, Krafft said. Tew's had a "pretty good" record on construction jobs, he said. It was the company's road maintenance contracts that required "a little more administrative time on our part."
The borough has paid Tew's $547,500 on the Oilwell Road contract, with nearly $116,500 still held back while disputed items work toward resolution, Dolan said recently.
Borough officials are now trying to determine whether the state citations should lead it to terminate its contract with Tew's and bar it from future jobs. The Alaska Occupational Safety and Health citations are "messy" as far as the relationship between Tew's and the borough, Krafft said.
"Because if it turns out that they willfully committed these violations, they put people's lives in jeopardy," he said. "I think that's something the borough really has to look at and say, 'Is this the type of contractor that we want working for us?' "