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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

Government-hired crews cleaning up debris in the North Bay from October’s wildfires are poised to ramp up their activity in the coming weeks under newly authorized contracts that federal officials say could allow for completion of the work within two months.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is managing the government-led cleanup program, last week awarded a $475 million contract to the Burlingame-based company ECC for completion of the debris removal process in Sonoma County, which suffered the most destruction in fires that burned across Northern California three months ago.

The corps also awarded a $160 million contract to Minnesota-based Ceres Environmental Services for the rest of the public debris removal effort in Napa, Mendocino and Lake counties.

Crews in all four counties have been working under emergency agreements to get the work started, and already more than 761,000 tons of debris have been removed, according to the Army Corps. In Sonoma County, workers have cleared more than 1,500 of 4,540 sites enrolled in the public program.

The new agreements will see contractors through the rest of the public cleanup, which the federal government is aiming to have finished by the end of February in Sonoma County and the end of this month in the other three counties.

“What the public is going to see is a slowing down — we’re still working, but we’re slowing down,” said Michael Logue, a Corps spokesman, of the new contracts. “Then suddenly there will be a lot of activity and we’ll ramp back up very quickly. It’s kind of like we’re in the eye of the storm, so to speak.”

Corps officials have set a goal of clearing debris from Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park neighborhood by the week of Jan. 15, according to Logue.

August Ochabauer, ECC’s vice president of operations, said the target date would be tough to meet, but his company has agreed to make the neighborhood its top priority once work under the new contract gets fully underway.

ECC, along with Florida-based AshBritt Inc., had secured the more limited emergency agreements for Sonoma County debris removal. AshBritt is “ramping down” now that ECC is handling the rest of the program, Logue said.

The death last month of an AshBritt subcontractor participating in the debris removal work prompted the Army Corps to require contractors to conduct safety training sessions with all team members, according to Logue. The Corps also eliminated use of the kind of truck that killed the 60-year old man at the landfill near Petaluma, he said.

ECC already cleared hundreds of properties under its earlier emergency agreement with the federal government and relied heavily on local workers, according to Ochabauer.

“We expect to continue that approach to doing the work under this new contract just like we did under the old contract,” he said. “We’ve got skilled local labor, we’ve got access to local equipment and it’s kind of a win-win, I think, for the local economy and for our operation.”

Already, about 50 ECC management staff are working in Santa Rosa, and they anticipate deploying roughly 1,000 workers across the county under the new contract, Ochabauer said. The company is still negotiating agreements with subcontractors but expects to have more workers in the field next week, he said.

Pay remains a lingering concern for some local labor leaders as the debris removal effort continues. The Army Corps contract provides for federal service rates that range as much as 50 percent below the California prevailing wages earned by union workers, said Jack Buckhorn, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council.

Prevailing wages vary by work classification, but can be $30 an hour — excluding benefits — for laborers and higher for operating engineers, according to state figures.

Local collective bargaining agreements require prevailing wages, so if contractors don’t pay them, it could leave union workers excluded from the debris removal, according to Buckhorn.

“We’re happy that the cleanup is moving forward. We just are concerned that local workers are going to be left behind,” Buckhorn said. “We feel that those that are the most directly affected by this fire ... should have a higher priority, and that’s just not going to happen if this contract enforces these lower service rates.”

However, ECC already has a successful track record with represented workers, Buckhorn said. And the company can still pay higher wages than the minimums established in the contract.

Union officials have already invested heavily in hazardous waste training for hundreds of workers looking to participate in the debris removal work, said Chris Snyder, district representative for Operating Engineers Local 3.

“Sonoma County’s got some of the highest-skilled equipment operators in California,” Snyder said. “We can fill any needs of the Army Corps and ECC right here in Sonoma County. We don’t need to bring in folks from out of the area.”

Ochabauer said ECC was mindful of the efforts by union leaders to provide skilled workers for the cleanup program and indicated the company was willing to pay more to keep them in the mix.

“We recognize that they made a tremendous effort to support this response and that the wages that are in the contract conflict with the effort that they made,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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