MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The giant engineering and construction firm Bechtel has wrapped up its work in Iraq. Bechtel won two contracts totaling $2.3 billion to repair infrastructure: water, power, sewage, and telecom systems, also to rebuild airports and bridges, hospitals and schools.
Bechtel completed all but two of its 99 projects. In the process, 52 of its contracted workers were killed. Cliff Mumm was Bechtel's program manager in Iraq - he's the company's president of infrastructure. He describes the early days in the spring on 2003 when they first went in to assess what needed to be done.
Mr. CLIFF MUMM (President of infrastructure, Bechtel): We went every place. In those days you could travel without security. You know, it was a relatively secure environment. And it was kind of a friendly, heady atmosphere. We rode the trains north, south, east, west. We looked at every power plant. We looked at all the substations, the transmission system. And we looked at the water system and the sewage treatment and the waste treatment plants. We looked at every one of those as well.
And the conclusion we came to really was that there wasn't much war damage, but what we really saw was that the country was just running like a jalopy. Almost everything was limping along.
BLOCK: When you took that look around, was it your impression, you know, this is a jalopy but we can get it running again, we know that we can fix all these many, many problems that are here, or did it just seem insurmountable?
Mr. MUMM: No. No. No. No. It was kind of an engineer's paradise, actually. All of these things were so simple that you could fix them. You knew how to fix them, bring them back up. And the Iraqis were anxious for the help and the things that when we looked at it we could analyze them from a systems basis.
The water, for example, in the north, all of the sewage was going into the river - the Tigris River around Baghdad - and then that river carried that sewage to something called the Sweetwater Canal, which was kind of ironically named. The Sweetwater Canal went about 270 kilometers, as I recall. It goes down to Basra and it enters a reservoir, which was clogged by kind of deltas of this sewage.
And that was then the source of drinking water for southern Iraq. And so there was a lot of urgency about getting the people in southern Iraq clean water for the first time in probably 20 years. We did that. And, in fact, right now, today, the people in southern Iraq are enjoying the benefit of that.
BLOCK: You have said in your report to Congress not long ago that it was not long after you got to Iraq and started working there that the security situation began going strongly downhill and that that had a significant impact on the work that you could do there. And I believe what you told them was it wasn't supposed to be that way.
Mr. MUMM: We had expected - and were told - that what we would have is what they called a permissive environment. You know, that it would be relatively secure. And, in fact, that isn't what happened. Shortly after we were there, you know, kind of the violence started. I think what's important here is that while we did all of the work that we came in and contracted with USAID to do, the benefit of that work is just difficult to realize in such a very, you know, violent situation.
BLOCK: There is one project that you were contracted for that is not finished and that's the pediatric hospital in Basra. Why don't you talk a bit about the security issues that came up as you were trying to get that hospital built?
Mr. MUMM: It actually was to be about a 96 bed hospital, but as the security deteriorated we couldn't even get workers to come to that site. In fact, there were 24 deaths actually. All the way from out site safety manager - who was executed - right down to the concrete supplier, where the folks were marched out in front of the building one Saturday, if you recall, and 11 of them just sort of point-blank executed. So, just trying to get anybody near that hospital to work became increasingly difficult.
BLOCK: It was a $50 million contract. The projection now is that the hospital will cost $98 million and the inspector general for Iraqi reconstruction actually says it will be $150 million, triple the originally estimate. If this hospital even gets finished.
Mr. MUMM: Yeah. I haven't looked at the inspector general's estimate in any kind of detail. But the big escalation in that price is really security to get people to work there. The question really is how much blood and how much money are people willing to spend to finish that hospital or should it just be left in a stable condition - which it is right now - that can wait until calmer times.
BLOCK: Since this project, this hospital in Basra, was not finished, why should Bechtel be paid in full for the work that you did?
Mr. MUMM: We get a fee on each of the two contracts. It wasn't for task by task. And we did do the work we were asked to do. That particular one, it just is not possible to finish.
BLOCK: When you look back on your own time in Iraq, how do you think about the projects that were done, the work that still needs to be done, and the future of that country now?
Mr. MUMM: Well, I guess what I would say is that if you could take a very long view, Iraq is a place that ought to have a very bright future. But it's going through just probably the darkest possible of times. And I think that's heartbreaking. All the Iraqis that we worked with - and we did all of our work using Iraqis, employing Iraqis. At one point we had over 40,000 Iraqis working on our projects.
And when you meet them, they're just sort of like us. You know, they want a place where their kids can kind of be safe, go to school. They want a job. They want security. And, you know, they want some nice things in their house. And it isn't like the average Iraqi is out in the streets and encouraging violence or doing anything. They just want a nice, calm, regular life. And I think when you sort of - you look at that and you know that because you've worked with so many of them, it just is discouraging.
BLOCK: Cliff Mumm, thanks for talking with us.
Mr. MUMM: You bet. I enjoyed it. Thank you very much.
BLOCK: Cliff Mumm is president of Bechtel Infrastructure. He spoke with us from Frederick, Maryland.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.