Caltrans releases data on problems in bridge testing unit

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, Jun. 14, 2012 - 6:48 pm

Caltrans released thousands of pages of new information Monday about data fabrications and other problems in its Foundation Testing Branch, a unit that examines the underground supports for bridges and other freeway structures in California.

The information addresses Caltrans' assertions of safety about three structures on which test data were fabricated. It also includes previously undisclosed integrity tests for the Bay Bridge main tower.

The Bee had requested the Bay Bridge documents in October. At that time, Caltrans said it did not have additional records. The newly discovered reports show that foundation piles examined by technician Duane Wiles, who had falsified data on other bridges, were tested more extensively than Caltrans stated earlier.

Caltrans said that the data helps to prove that the new Bay Bridge is safe. But the freshly discovered records raise new questions about the density of concrete on at least two Bay Bridge tower piles.

The agency released the data in response to requests from state legislators, following a recent Bee investigation that cited testing and design questions about the concrete and steel piles that underpin the new Bay Bridge tower.

After The Bee report appeared, Caltrans fired Wiles and his supervisor, Brian Liebich. A state oversight committee announced last week that an expert review of the foundation of the new Bay Bridge tower would be conducted by the California Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the California Senate Committee on Transportation and Housing, said his committee would hold a hearing on the testing issues today.

"We're going to listen to Caltrans, but it's our duty to go beyond what Caltrans says," said DeSaulnier. "We'll dig as deep as required to find out the truth."

Seven of the 13 Bay Bridge tower piles were tested by Wiles, who failed to verify the proper operation of his gamma-radiation test device, a required step to ensure the best-quality results.

Experts also questioned the design of the piles, which made it impossible for Caltrans to follow its own requirements for radiation testing.

Caltrans sometimes orders a second type of integrity testing for foundation piles, involving acoustic waves. Last month, agency officials said that in most cases involving portions of the bridge foundation examined by Wiles, they had no such sonic test records. After The Bee investigation was published, Caltrans obtained tests for most of the piles from the contractor who conducted them.

The documents released Monday provide some previously missing sonic reports. For two piles, they show no problems. But in at least two other cases, sonic tests showed anomalies.

"The anomaly identified could be from a batch of concrete that has not fully set at the time of testing, or it could be a very poor area of concrete," wrote the sonic testing contractor, Olson Engineering, in a report on one pile. "We would suggest that the area would either be retested at a later date to determine if the concrete is unset currently or there is a problem … "

Caltrans acting director Malcolm Dougherty said such findings are not uncommon, and do not prove a defect. "Piles are always assessed by an experienced engineer and are often determined to be structurally sound despite an anomaly," he added.

But in these cases, Caltrans reports previously obtained by The Bee indicate that the sonic results were not considered by its own engineer who approved each pile. His reports contain no discussion of sonic testing, while similar reports for other Bay Bridge tower piles discuss sonic results extensively.

In another case, the location of a pile with suspect results remains unclear, due to ambiguous record-keeping by Olson Engineering. The company's reports routinely mislabel the structures tested as being on Yerba Buena Island, although Caltrans said they pertain to the main bridge tower.

In one case, a single report erroneously pertains to two different piles, leaving it uncertain which one was examined, and which had questionable concrete density.

Dougherty said Caltrans engineers reviewed the report and concluded the pile in question was acceptable. But no such analysis was noted in the engineering approval reports The Bee previously obtained.

In another case, no sonic testing was conducted on a structure examined by Wiles with radiation tests.

Caltrans also released documents about the three structures for which data was known to be fabricated.

One was detected in time to retest the pile. The others – a freeway overpass on Interstate 405 in Southern California and a large sign on Highway 580 in Oakland – were found to be safe, according to analyses written by Barton Newton, state bridge engineer for Caltrans.

The reports were dated Oct. 25, a week after The Bee inquired about the structures.

Dougherty reiterated Caltrans assertions that examinations of work by Wiles and other technicians found only three fabrications. Those tests were conducted by Caltrans, the State Bureau of Audits and the Federal Highway Administration.

Federal investigators indicated in a letter to Caltrans dated Nov. 17, four days after The Bee investigation appeared, that they also had found only the three fabrications. When previously contacted by The Bee, both agencies declined to comment.

Dougherty described the research in general terms, but did not release the methodology or other details. Only the State Bureau of Audits and the Federal Highway Administration can do so, he said.

Dougherty said the Sacramento District Attorney's Office and federal prosecutors had declined to file charges against anyone implicated in data fabrication, or in waste, fraud and abuse at the Foundation Testing Branch.

Last week he urged them to reconsider prosecuting Wiles for the fabrications.

In a letter to DeSaulnier, chairman of the transportation committee, Dougherty called the actions of Wiles and Liebich "unacceptable and reprehensible," and noted that procedures recently have been put into place to prevent future problems.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Charles Piller



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