Six months after his wife gave birth to their second child, Jose Aguliar was repairing a water main break in Detroit when a sinkhole collapsed and killed him. A state investigation concluded that the company, Imperial Construction, “exposed his employees to trenching hazards which led to the death of one worker.”
Five years later, the Detroit-based company continues to be the city’s top contractor for water main repairs, despite receiving 18 violations since 2009 and “repeated, demonstrated indifference to several provisions of the trenching standard,” according to the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
On Friday, an Imperial Construction crew was drilling into a sidewalk in front of 1515 Broadway downtown to fix an earlier mistake when they struck a steam line, forcing the coffee shop to evacuate and cancel a play. Steam spewed out of the punctured line for hours, and the front window of the coffee shop was broken. Electricity was cut to several buildings and apartments, which remain on generators, and downtown security was forced to intervene when two crew members threatened to kill me for asking a single question about what had happened.
“Get away from me before I fucking kill you,” one of the workers yelled at me, prompting downtown security to intervene.
Another worker lunged at me three times, came within inches of hitting me with a backhoe and also threatened to kill me. His co-workers were forced to intercept each time.
“You people need to go back to the suburbs,” he told me. “Half of you are scared of Detroit and run to the suburbs before it gets dark.”
(I live in Detroit)
Records show that the company received more than $23 million in contracts from DWSD since 2008. In April, the DWSD Board approved a $4.3 million contract for Imperial to fix water mains for 540 days.
At least one company, Blaze Construction, complained about a lack of transparency in the bidding process.
I asked Deputy Director Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Darryl Latimer about the city’s affinity for Imperial. He said the company is consistently the lowest bidder – and sometimes the only bidder – and does good work.
“Imperial has done real good work for us,” Latimer said, calling the owner “a good, hardworking guy.” “This is tough work. It’s hard to make money doing it.”
Latimer said the company’s past violations were never considered a problem by the law department.
“Those are legal decisions that the law department would decide on,” Latimer insisted.
Latimer said the department is launching an investigation Monday into the threats over the weekend.
The problems with the water main are part of a series of embarrassing blunders that Mayor Mike Duggan has been trying to rectify. Chief of Staff Alexis Wiley was at the coffee shop Sunday talking to the owner about troubles that began with dangers from a nearby high-rise, the Wurlitzer.
Update 11:55 a.m.: The company declined interviews but released this comment:
“An unidentified reporter entered an active and taped off construction zone while Imperial Construction was making a repair at 1515 Broadway. He attempted to take close up photos of the scene and our employees, creating a safety hazard. He was asked to stop and to leave the site several times. He refused and continued to provoke our employees thereby endangering himself and our employees.”
My response: I never crossed the yellow tape. I am working to get surveillance video of the incident and any firsthand account from DTE crews and downtown security to show what really happened.
Here, a city worker pulls back one of the threatening employees. I’m clearly behind the yellow tape.
Disclosure: Motor City Muckraker Publisher Abby Shah is a part-time employee at the coffee shop.
Steve Neavling lives and works in Detroit as an investigative journalist. His stories have uncovered corruption, led to arrests and reforms and prompted FBI investigations.