Records indicate problems with safety tests on some California bridges

Reply Mon 6 Aug, 2012 09:25 am
Aug. 06, 2012
Records indicate problems with safety tests on some California bridges
Charles Piller | The Sacramento Bee

A special team within Caltrans has uncovered problems with safety testing far broader than previously known.

After reviewing records for roadways and bridges, the engineering team has uncovered doctored data and other suspicious tests, including work done on the new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The engineers started examining test results in December to learn how much trouble a single rogue technician caused California. They found problems that extend beyond that former employee and call into question testing of the new Bay Bridge and three other key Bay Area spans.

The engineers' assessment follows assertions by California Department of Transportation officials that their tests were valid and that the Bay Bridge is safe. It identified at least 23 cases of suspect radiation test data used to approve the reinforced concrete foundations of the Bay Bridge, Benicia-Martinez Bridge, Dumbarton Bridge and Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, according to state and federal reports and emails.

The engineers said the records for those spans should be analyzed further.

Those 23 cases are among 1,000 files of Caltrans tests deemed questionable, all involving roadways and bridges across the state.

Caltrans launched its review of data after a Bee investigation last November revealed that a technician who conducted tests to determine the structural integrity of the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge had falsified tests on other projects. Records show that the review team found some "intentional modifications" of data causing "consequential" impact. One consequential case involved the new Benicia-Martinez Bridge, which opened to traffic in 2007 and connects Contra Costa and Solano counties across the busy Interstate 680 corridor.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty, through their press offices, declined to comment. At a news conference last week, in his first public comments about the testing controversy, Brown dismissed concerns about the Bay Bridge.

In an email response to written questions, Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said no bridges or other structures "have been found to be unsound thus far in our review." Rocco said "the Bay Bridge is safe."

Despite the assurances, Caltrans documents show that the agency's review team has not yet determined the breadth of fabrications and other data problems. And the Federal Highway Administration, or FHWA, in a stinging draft assessment, criticized Caltrans officials for waiting several years to launch a rigorous review of the testing problem. The report also says that some of California's federal transportation funding could be jeopardized because the state did not notify the FHWA about the falsified data and related issues when Caltrans discovered them in 2008 and 2009.

The Bee obtained the federal and state reports and emails from the FHWA through a Freedom of Information Act request. The documents show that Caltrans executives were told of problems with the Bay Bridge tests prior to their public statements in June describing those tests as proof of the structure's safety.

Documents show Caltrans also informed the FHWA of some of the new findings last spring, alerting Sarah Skeen, a FHWA adviser to Caltrans on the testing problems. She wrote colleagues via email in March that "there may have been some tampering of data files on testing at the Bay Bridge as well as the north approach to the Benicia Bridge."

New problems emerge

Caltrans formed its "GamDat Team" last December to review data from gamma-gamma logging, a test that uses radiation to detect flaws in concrete around the outer portions of piles that support bridges and other freeway structures.

The agency repeatedly has described the testing lapses as limited to a handful of harmless cases caused by a technician who has since left the agency.

The GamDat reports show numerous other problems in tests conducted by that technician, Duane Wiles. Its June 1 progress report shows irregular test data for the new Bay Bridge main tower piles 2 and 5. Caltrans records show that Wiles tested those piles, sometimes working with another technician. The Bee previously reported problems in construction and test certification of piles 3 and 8, involving a different type of test that used sonic waves.

Skeen wrote to other federal officials in March that GamDat research "indicates that Wiles falsified data as far back as 2004."

The GamDat report also cites irregularities in tests conducted by Wiles on the Benicia-Martinez Bridge, in addition to the intentional modification of a separate test of that structure that apparently did not involve Wiles. The team found "significant irregularities" on that bridge, "which have required redirection of team resources … to establish a reasonable level of confidence in findings."

"Unfortunately, the Team cannot predict the number of significant irregularities that will be discovered in the process of reviewing the remaining results," the report notes, "nor the time required to carry out in-depth analyses needed to substantiate findings." It has so far dismissed only a handful of irregularities as not representing substantive problems.

Caltrans, which previously said the GamDat work would be completed this summer, said the team's report would be finalized early this fall and made public.

California Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, who chairs the Senate transportation committee and whose district includes the southern portion of the Benicia Bridge, has scheduled a public hearing Aug. 14 to address Caltrans testing issues.

"I'm determined, as is the committee, to get to the truth. These are huge investments in public safety, and if they are not making the public safer, I want to know why. And we are going to find out," said DeSaulnier. "We will be as relentless and tenacious as required."

The hearings will focus on the foundation of the main tower of the new Bay Bridge. That foundation comprises 13 reinforced concrete piles that reach into bedrock under the bay. Radiation and sonic testing lapses have raised questions about the structural integrity of the concrete in some piles. Leading independent experts have suggested further analysis to determine if the foundation would hold up in an extreme earthquake – the key factor behind the decision to build the new bridge.

Caltrans scheduled the $6.5 billion span, the most costly public works project in state history, to open by Labor Day 2013. Agency officials repeatedly have asserted that the 13 piles of the tower foundation were tested properly.

In June, Caltrans officials said that favorable results of radiation tests, one of three key examinations, verified the structural integrity of all the piles.

Yet on May 24, prior to those comments, the GamDat Team had notified agency executives – including State Bridge Engineer Barton Newton and Philip J. Stolarski, a top engineering official – that data irregularities had been found involving Pile 2 of the main tower, and another portion of the Bay Bridge. On June 1 the officials were told of doubts involving Pile 5.

Rocco said Dougherty stood by his earlier statements about the gamma-gamma tests, calling the GamDat report "preliminary information," and noting that "multiple factors give us the utmost confidence in the (tower) foundation."

State and federal probes

According to its charter, the GamDat Team will "conduct comprehensive fact finding and technical analyses" and "document all evidence of irregular or manipulated (radiation) data."

The team uses pattern matching, which compares data from different structures, to determine if digital records were falsified by copying and pasting from one test file to another. This occurred, for example, with a road sign foundation in Oakland and freeway overcrossings in Southern California. It also will check other signs of fabrication, such as incorrect time stamps on data files, or errors in calibration readings for test meters.

Loren Turner, an engineer with the Caltrans Division of Research & Innovation, leads the team. It includes Caltrans engineer Jason Wahleithner, who discovered Wiles' known falsifications in 2008 and 2009, and engineering geologist Michael Morgan, who in 2008 and 2010 emailed agency officials with concerns about the adequacy of Caltrans' initial search for fabricated data.

The team's final report will be issued after its methods and findings have been vetted by a panel of outside advisers being assembled by the Federal Highway Administration.

The federal agency also drafted an assessment of Caltrans oversight of foundation testing. It was based on an ongoing investigation that began in 2010, when a whistleblower approached federal officials, long after Caltrans had learned of Wiles' admitted fraud.

The April 30 report criticized Caltrans for numerous lapses in uncovering and managing the data fabrication episodes.

"It has taken several years … to get (Caltrans officials) to initiate a detailed review of (gamma) data records that will hopefully determine if other instances of falsification exist," the federal report noted.

It faulted Caltrans officials for allowing Wiles to conduct radiation tests even after he admitted fabricating data. When supervisors finally removed Wiles from the foundation test unit, they placed him in another job involving data collection.

The federal report noted that Wiles also retained unfettered access to archival files for nine months after he was first caught falsifying data. It does not say whether Wiles removed or doctored files during that period.

The report, not yet final, blamed Caltrans for poor archiving and information management. For example, a key computer server hard drive crashed, destroying its data. "Information on the server was not backed up and staff turnover generally resulted in loss of project records," according to the federal report.

Due to such problems, the full extent of data errors and fabrications probably will never be known.

The named author of the report, Bill Forrester, recently retired as director of structures for the Federal Highway Administration California Division. Internal emails show that the report was written by Skeen, an engineer within that division. Skeen did not respond to a request for comment.

The report said Caltrans failed to inform federal authorities after learning that Wiles had fabricated foundation data on structures Caltrans had certified as sound. That failure to acknowledge false data, the federal report noted, could jeopardize federal aid. The U.S. government funds much of the freeway work done in California.

Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said his agency would answer questions about the report and its implications after it has been finalized. Caltrans declined to comment on the report.

The report also criticized Caltrans for lapses in the improper removal from job sites of tens of thousands of dollars of steel and other supplies by Brian Liebich, Wiles' former supervisor, who was fired by the agency last fall.

Liebich has denied wrongdoing and has appealed his firing. Federal authorities have suspended Liebich and Wiles from working on federally funded highway projects, according to the FHWA report.

DeSaulnier, the transportation committee chairman, said his committee would do whatever it takes to get the bottom of Caltrans testing and safety problems.

"If need be," he said, "I'll go to the Senate Rules Committee to ask for subpoena power and put people under oath."
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