By CARL GREEN
Collinsville — Les Sterman has seen the future, and it’s a picture filled with St. Louis-area union members completing vital Mississippi River levee projects using the Project Labor Agreement system.
Now all he’s got to do is convince the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that PLA is the way to go, at least in this region.
Sterman, known for heading the East-West Gateway development council for many years, is working to ensure the accreditation of the region’s river levees as sole staffer for the Southwestern Illinois Flood Prevention District Council.
That group was formed in 2009 after federal officials in 2007 said they were prepared to de-accredit the aging levees. That would force new and higher flood insurance premiums for residents and businesses alike, costing the region industrial jobs and putting many homeowners in a bind as well.
“That kind of set the alarm bells off,” Sterman told the Labor Tribune in an interview. ““It would be a catastrophe for this area.
It’s a huge swath of territory. There are a lot of good jobs, and a lot of homes that would be affected.”
Sterman and the council have made steady progress, identifying projects that need to be done, stockpiling funds from a three-county sales tax to pay the local share, and dealing with the key federal agencies involved — the Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Administration.
The entire project is expected to cost from $160 million to $200 million, but it is proceeding in smaller individual parts. Sterman is determined to use Project Labor Agreements any time the local tax money is being spent. Those agreements allow contractors and unions to work together; the contractors don’t have to worry about strikes and are assured of adequate numbers of skilled workers, while the unions are guaranteed that their members will do the work instead of out-of-town crews.
KEEPING THE MONEY HERE
To Sterman, that means keeping the tens of millions of dollars being spent here in the regional economy, causing a rippling multiplier effect.
“We’re not going to invest our money and send it someplace else,” he said. “I’m kind of digging in my heels. I feel it’s just important for our region.”
He noted that several recent large construction jobs, such as the Conoco-Phillips refinery expansion, were completed successfully using Project Labor Agreements.
“Everybody was happy,” he said. “The contractors were happy. Conoco Phillips got the job done with quality craftsmanship; and there were no complaints from labor. It creates a good working environment.”
Sterman's policy of using the agreements became an issue recently when he received what appeared to be good news.
The Corps, which had not expected to obtain federal funding for the work, actually managed to secure some federal money. It will be used for a key part of the project – building a cutoff wall all the way down to bedrock at a vulnerable section near Wood River. That will shut off the underground water seepage that has weakened the levee above.
The local officials are glad to get some federal funding to supplement the local tax, but the money comes with tough requirements. One is that local funds must pay for about 40 percent of the $20 million job. Another is that the Corps of Engineers must sign off on all plans, including use of a Project Labor Agreement.
“We’d like to use these federal funds if we can, but there are a lot of strings attached. It’s not free money,” Sterman said.
The Corps has balked at the Project Labor Agreement, saying such deals are anti-competitive and that contractors don’t like them. That defies the experience in the metro east area and in the Missouri side of the river as well, where PLAs or similar labor-management agreements have been widely used on nearly every major construction project in the region.
Sterman credits the Southwestern Illinois Building and Construction Trades Council for providing fair and effective administration of the agreements.
OBAMA WANTS A PLA
Even President Obama – the Corps’ ultimate chief – has issued a statement encouraging them to use Project Labor Agreements whenever possible.
So in recent weeks, the Corps has been studying the matter, holding meetings with contractors to get their opinions. They were supposed to bring a decision by June 4, but that deadline was missed, and the new one is July 9.
Dale Stewart, executive secretary of the Trades Council, says it shouldn’t be hard to figure out whether a Project Labor Agreement is appropriate for the levees project.
“It’s a great idea,” he said. “It secures the fact that local people are working on the project.”
Stewart said studies show that every dollar spent on a project such as this one is turned over about seven times in the regional economy. “We don’t want to send that money out of state,” he said.
Stewart has met with representatives of the Corps and said he has had 63 people respond to the Corps in support of Project Labor Agreements, including numerous contractors. He also submitted 26 pages of listings of projects that have been completed successfully in the metro-east using Project Labor Agreements.
NEW MAPS ON HOLD
Meanwhile, FEMA is holding off on making new floodplain maps, which have been on hold since the 2007 announcement. If they were issued saying the area has insufficient flood protection, the resulting economic problems for the region would kick into place.
But as long as the region and the Corps. are working toward improving the levees, those maps are on hold.
“They know we’re making significant progress to meet their standards – as long as we make good progress,” Sterman said. “One way or another, the improvements will get made, and the work will get done right.”
He is maintaining an internal deadline of 2015 for getting the work done. Still, he says, “This work should have been done by now.”
HOW WE GOT HERE
The levees protecting the Illinois bank of the Mississippi River were built before World War II in Madison, St. Clair and Monroe counties. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Corps of Engineers improved them to meet flood protection standards required at the time. They have served long and faithfully, even withstanding the Great of Flood of 1993, when the water rose to 49 feet against levees of 54 feet. They have been well maintained by several local levee districts.
But as the years have passed, flood control standards have tightened. Matters came to a head after Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed New Orleans’ flood control system. That brought a heightened awareness of flood control regulations, and FEMA got more money to update and improve its flood-plain maps.
The result was the unwelcome surprise in 2007 when the Corps said it could no longer guarantee the performance of the metro-east levees, and FEMA said it would issue new maps showing the area as flood-prone.
In some places, that might not matter a whole lot, but this area, known as American Bottoms, is the pre-eminent industrial zone in the St. Louis region, providing thousands of good jobs and homes. Any further industrial development would be snuffed out by the change in the flood designation, Sterman said, threatening existing jobs and making creation of new jobs highly unlikely.
“As painful as it was, it was a really good warning,” he said. Flood insurance would become mandatory for any homeowners in federal mortgage programs, and it would cost more, too – something like $5,000 a year on a $100,000 home.
One option was for the region to ask the Corps to rebuild the levees, but the engineers warned that it would take them decades to get around to it. A better option was for the region to tackle the problem itself, so the three counties and the state legislature joined forces to create the Flood Prevention District Council and install the tax, which generates $11 million a year.
Sterman remains the only employee of the council, which shares space with the Collinsville Area Recreation District alongside the Schoolhouse Trail bike route. He was executive director of East-West Gateway from 1983 to 2009.