Point by point: Sacramento Bee analysis of Caltrans retraction request

06/15/2012 12:35 PM

10/08/2014 10:36 AM

The Sacramento Bee has rejected a request from Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to retract its story raising questions about the structural integrity of a foundation of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The story was first published online May 26 and in print May 27. The Bee quoted Caltrans' assessment that the new bridge is safe in its original story and in the June 9 news story about the retraction request.

What follows is a fact check, reviewing point-by-point, the request received from Caltrans. Bee editors worked with reporter Charles Piller to fact-check the Caltrans complaints, using information gathered from interviews with nine independent experts, thousands of Caltrans' own documents and Caltrans' response to written questions submitted by The Bee for its story.

Each of Caltrans' points is stated first, followed by The Bee's responses in bold type. Links to supporting documents are in the responses:

CALTRANS: FALSE STATEMENTS AND QUESTIONABLE REPORTING METHODS "Records Raise Doubts on Bay Bridge Concrete" published May 27, 2012 by the Sacramento Bee must be retracted because it is fundamentally flawed and contains at least 30 false or misleading statements. Here are five false statements that discredit the article:

1. FALSE STATEMENT: "By keeping quiet about the problem, the builder prevented further examination or repair."

SACRAMENTO BEE: Caltrans said it did not have the report from a crosshole sonic test showing a 19-foot concrete anomaly in Pile 3 until last fall, almost five years after the test. Independent experts in deep-foundation testing agreed that the failure to provide the sonic report prevented further examination and (if needed) repair, and left uncertainties about Pile 3, one of 13 foundation piles for the main tower of the bridge.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: The contractor provided Caltrans with all information requested.

SACRAMENTO BEE: This is true and was reported in The Bee's story. Caltrans did not require the builder to conduct sonic tests on all piles, or to submit the results of some sonic tests.

CALTRANS: At no time were adequate "examinations" or tests not completed.

All required and necessary tests were conducted by Caltrans to insure all piles met or exceeded standards, specifications and strength.

SACRAMENTO BEE: Tests required by Caltrans were done. Those required tests did not adequately verify the strength of Pile 3, according to independent experts.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: On Pile 3 Gamma-Gamma Logging (GGL) testing and strength tests on sample cylinders were conducted after the Crosshole Sonic Logging (CSL) test.

SACRAMENTO BEE: Crosshole sonic testing found a 19-foot section of concrete in Pile 3 that was "not fully set" or was "very poor."

Caltrans and independent experts agree that the most likely cause of the problematic concrete was a failure to harden. Crosshole sonic testing uses sound waves to examine the interior section of a foundation pile. A second sonic test could have determined if the concrete eventually hardened properly, or was defective.

Instead, Caltrans used gamma-gamma logging, which tests sections near the edge of a pile with radiation. The contractor that conducted the sonic tests, Olson Engineering, and the manufacturer of the radiation device, Mount Sopris Instrument Co., agree that gamma-gamma tests cannot detect unset concrete.

Cylinder break tests measure the strength of small cylinders cast from a portion of the concrete used to create the pile. Caltrans records show that the cylinders tested were from a different load of concrete than those used in the suspect, 19-foot section.

None of these tests conclusively determined whether the concrete strength in the problem section met the required 5,000 pounds per square inch standard necessary to withstand the most extreme earthquake.

(In a letter to The Bee, Caltrans indicated that "slump" tests also prove the strength of the piles. Slump estimates the ability of wet concrete to flow smoothly, but does not indicate strength after hardening.)

CALTRANS: Your reporter did not include subsequent test results on Pile 3.

SACRAMENTO BEE: This is not true. The story said: "Caltrans said the original sonic report for Pile 3 was not needed, nor was a repeat test warranted, because subsequent examinations that used radiation instead of acoustic waves showed that pile as sound."

CALTRANS: 2. FALSE STATEMENT: "Two of the 13 piles that rise out the Bay to hold up the tower contain suspect and inadequately tested concrete. Sonic-wave tests revealed a 19-foot section of poor concrete in Pile 3, in a location subject to profound seismic forces. When tested, the concrete had not hardened to the required strength. It was not retested."

SACRAMENTO BEE: The paragraph from the story is true. It is about a sonic test that was not repeated.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: All piles, including the two referenced, were subjected to rigorous inspection and testing both before and after the CSL sonic test. Inspection and testing after the CSL test included cylinder break tests, and GGL tests. The number of tests conducted for all piles exceed the industry standard for testing concrete.

SACRAMENTO BEE: See response under "1. FALSE STATEMENT."

Caltrans cites "the industry standard," but fails to specify which standard. Such practices vary across states and federal construction agencies. Such agencies generally agree that when worrisome test results occur, a builder should disclose the data so that possible problems can be examined and, if needed, repaired. The Bee story raised questions about whether the Bay Bridge foundation builder's failure to disclose a test result showing suspect concrete might have prevented further examination or necessary repair.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: All evidence shows that the concrete, which had not hardened at the time of CSL testing, subsequently hardened. In fact, it exceeded strength requirements.

SACRAMENTO BEE: Tests conducted after the sonic test on Pile 3 - presumably the evidence Caltrans asserts -- are explained above under "1. FALSE STATEMENT."

CALTRANS: Your reporter did not include subsequent test results on Pile 3.

SACRAMENTO BEE: See answer to same statement above.

CALTRANS: 3. FALSE STATEMENT: "For unclear reasons, Pile 8 either received no sonic test or builders could not locate the test report. Job-site inspection diaries also show construction abnormalities in that pile."

SACRAMENTO BEE: The Bee's statement is true. Caltrans and builder documents show that either the sonic test for Pile 8 was never conducted or the report apparently was lost. Inspection diaries show that an extraordinary amount of bad concrete took six days to remove, compared to an average of about three days for all the other piles on this job.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: This statement is false and reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about bridge engineering and failure to conduct basic factchecking. Piles are not required to receive sonic tests unless a potential issue is identified by a GGL test.

SACRAMENTO BEE: The Bee's story reported that Caltrans did not require sonic tests unless a potential issue is identified by a gamma-gamma test.

What Caltrans asserts here is belied by its performance in the field. Records show sonic testing was routine, and preceded gamma-gamma testing in 11 of 12 cases. Caltrans and the bridge designer agreed on an unusual pile design that specially accommodated sonic testing, at a cost of slightly less reliable test results for the gamma-gamma radiation testing.

No sonic test results can be found for Pile 8, raising questions about that pile in addition to the problem with Pile 3. The Bee reported Caltrans' response that it didn't require the sonic test, yet all other piles received sonic testing.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: Pile 8 was subjected to all required tests that exceeded industry standards to confirm pile quality. No issues, no abnormalities, were identified. This is why a sonic test did not take place.

SACRAMENTO BEE: See previous response.

CALTRANS: 4. FALSE STATEMENT: "Builders treated the piles with an additive meant to increase concrete strength, but known to cause soft or poor-quality concrete when overused - one possible explanation for the 19-foot anomaly."

SACRAMENTO BEE: The Bee's statement is true. The cause for the 19-foot anomaly in Pile 3 remains unknown, according to independent experts and reported in the story. The prospect of an overdose with a concrete additive was suggested by independent concrete experts as one possible explanation. The story reported that Caltrans confirmed a separate incident in which an overdose of that additive, WRDA 64, caused insufficiently hardened concrete on the Ruckman overcrossing in San Francisco. Much of that structure required disassembly as a result. Similar additive problems afflicted another Caltrans bridge project in Atascadero, according to Caltrans documents.

The Bee story also reported that a construction document provided by Caltrans shows a computer error in the concrete mixing plant that resulted in incorrect amounts of concrete ingredients being used in one pile.

CALTRANS: MATERIAL FACT: The reporter is incorrect. The additive in question was used to increase workability, not increase strength.

SACRAMENTO BEE: WRDA 64, and similar "water reducers" make concrete more workable (flow more easily). Water also increases workability, but added water often weakens concrete. So water-reducing additives replace excess water to boost workability while maintaining concrete strength. For this reason, people in the industry often speak of water reducers as "increasing strength."

WR Grace, the maker of WRDA 64, says in its own product description: "WRDA 64 produces a concrete with lower water content (typically 8 to 10% reduction), greater plasticity and higher strength."

CALTRANS: Your reporter then states that overuse of additive "could be one possible explanation" for the 19-foot area. There is no evidence to support this hypothesis. It is purely speculative.

SACRAMENTO BEE: See above.

CALTRANS: 5. FALSE STATEMENT: "This pile was plagued by test and construction problems. Workers chipped Pile 8 for six days--twice the average needed to remove inferior concrete."

MATERIAL FACT: This statement has no factual basis. Pile 8 was not "plagued by test and construction problems." All required tests show Pile 8 was well constructed.

MATERIAL FACT: The number of days spent on chipping is irrelevant. It has nothing to do with the quality of concrete.

(Note: A letter from Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty to The Bee adds the following point about the chipping issue.) "Eleven days after the concrete was poured, and seven days after the CSL test, the contractor conducted 'chipping' on Pile 3. This is a practice in which they jackhammer away at the top of a pile until we are satisfied we have hit solid, pure concrete. Chipping on Pile 3 showed that the concrete had set. The chipping record was supplied to your reporter."

SACRAMENTO BEE: Chipping - using a power tool to remove defective concrete from the top of a pile - cannot prove that the pile has hardened to its required strength at the top or farther down.

"Hard" concrete reached after removing defective concrete might not meet pile design requirements. It includes no precision test, for example, to ensure that the pile can withstand more than 5,000 pounds per square inch of pressure, rather than, say, 2,500. Both are "hard" - but the lower figure would not meet the design requirement for holding up the bridge tower.

Pile 8 took six days to chip, about twice the time required for the other Bay Bridge piles. This point matters because, as reported in the story, Caltrans documents describe a pile with serious concrete problems on an offramp in San Francisco that similarly required an unusual amount of chipping. In that case, as with Pile 8, gamma-gamma tests showed no problems. The Bee story also described an Atascadero bridge which showed that chipping cannot reliably determine if a pile hardened properly.

CALTRANS: FOUR QUESTIONABLE REPORTING METHODS

"Records Raise Doubts on Bay Bridge Concrete" published May 27, 2012 by the Sacramento Bee contains questionable reporting methods. Here are four examples:

1. SOURCES ARE EDITED, OMITTING CRITICAL INFORMATION. Your reporter alleges that "Olson Engineering detected the problem concrete in Pile 3 in 2007 . . . The company suggested new sonic tests. None was conducted, according to Caltrans." Your reporter was provided with the company's recommendation, but omitted the second half: Conduct a GGL test as a viable alternative. Here is Olson's entire recommendation: "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. We would suggest that the area would either be re-tested at a later date to determine if the concrete is unset currently or there is a problem, or gamma-gamma test could be undertaken." (Emphasis added)

MATERIAL FACT: Caltrans complied with Olson's recommendation and conducted a GGL test.

SACRAMENTO BEE: It is true that in the story's first reference, The Bee should have more clearly explained the document in which Olson Engineering suggested further testing on Pile 3. The Bee posted the document online and in print told readers where to go online to see the document themselves, but did not quote the entire recommendation in the story. Instead, the story quoted Caltrans saying the original sonic report was not needed, nor was a follow-up necessary, because the gamma-gamma tests were sufficient. Readers would have better understood this issue if the document had been fully quoted in the story.

Olson declined to comment about its work on the bridge, so its reasons for suggesting the option of a gamma-gamma test remain unclear. It has stated in a company brochure about its work that gamma-gamma testing can't detect anomalies caused by unset concrete.

While Caltrans said it complied with the Olson recommendation, it appears that Caltrans could not have made a decision about which test would best re-examine the problem section because it was unaware of this issue for almost five years. According to Caltrans documents, this is how it played out: Olson found problems through the sonic test performed Jan. 9, 2007. Caltrans conducted a radiation test as part of its standard testing process on Jan. 12, 2007. The builder grouted the testing pipes on Jan. 24, 2007, so no further tests could have been done without drilling new test holes. Then, on Feb. 8, 2007, Olson issued its report revealing the troubling sonic test results and suggested course of action. Last fall the bridge builder gave the document to Caltrans in response to a Bee story. Caltrans said it did not have the report prior to that time.

CALTRANS: 2. NO OPPORTUNITY TO FULLY RESPOND TO ALLEGATIONS. Your reporter did not give Caltrans representatives the opportunity to fully respond to "expert" and anonymous opinions he solicited for the story.

MATERIAL FACT: The last time your reporter contacted Caltrans about a media question was April 30, 2012--fully 27 days before his story was printed.

SACRAMENTO BEE: Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty would not meet with The Bee prior to publication to answer questions raised by documents and experts. Nor would Caltrans make engineers available to answer questions. Instead, the agency consented only to answer written questions sent via email to Tamie McGowen, assistant director for public affairs. Those questions asked for response to concerns raised by key experts.

The Bee's reporter has been investigating problems within Caltrans since August 2011 and during that time has had many interactions with Caltrans and has obtained at least 75,000 Caltrans documents.

The Bee's last interaction with McGowen on this story was May 22, 2012, a repeat request, via email, for information central to Caltrans' assessment of concerns about the bridge foundation. The request initially was made on March 8, 2012. The agency acknowledged receipt of The Bee's email, but otherwise has not responded.

The retraction request also ignores The Bee's attempts to get answers from Gov. Jerry Brown's office in the week prior to publication. Gov. Brown's office declined to respond.

In the past two weeks, through his press staff, Dougherty has twice canceled meetings with Bee editors and Piller to discuss Caltrans concerns. The Bee has let Caltrans and the Governor's Office know they have a standing invitation to meet to discuss these issues.

CALTRANS: 3. UNSUBSTANTIATED, DEFAMATORY STATEMENTS. Your reporter makes the false and defamatory allegation that "Caltrans officials misrepresented or dismissed crucial facts that differed with their conclusions."

MATERIAL FACT: This statement is patently false. Your reporter cites no evidence of misrepresentation.

SACRAMENTO BEE: This statement is substantiated in the story and thus not defamatory. Caltrans officials and their paid consultants have made numerous such misrepresentations, misleading claims or false claims, including the following examples cited in The Bee investigation:

Officials said that sonic tests "showed the expected good construction quality," ignoring the major anomaly found in Pile 3 and the absence of a test report for Pile 8.

Caltrans created what its experts called "full scale" model piles, ostensibly to check pile-design concerns raised by independent experts in a Bee story last November. Caltrans documents showed that the models were miniature versions, which independent experts said were too dissimilar to provide reliable comparisons.

After the Bee's November story revealed fabrications of test results on other structures by a state technician, Caltrans' gamma-gamma testing came under suspicion. Thus gamma-gamma data for the Bay Bridge data were reviewed by the Federal Highway Administration and by a Caltrans engineer. Caltrans has said that those reviews proved the reliability of those data. But the reviews were incomplete and not vetted by outside experts. A more comprehensive review of gamma-gamma data has been launched by Caltrans, and its results are not due for months.

CALTRANS: 4. EDITORIALIZING. Your reporter editorializes throughout the article, drawing (c)onclusions that have no basis in engineering data or fact. Examples include:

"suspicious concrete"

SACRAMENTO BEE: Independent experts described the 19-foot anomaly in the concrete of Pile 3 as highly unusual and troubling, and worthy of further examination that did not take place.

CALTRANS: "gaps in essential data"

SACRAMENTO BEE: Either the crosshole sonic test for Pile 8 was not completed or the report has not been located, according to Caltrans and the builder. Construction inspection diaries and data sheets released by Caltrans contain numerous gaps and ambiguities. For example, the cause of a computer error in the concrete mixing plant, which resulted in incorrect amounts of concrete ingredients being used, was not explained. The specifics of inspection procedures for examining the chipping of pile tops - important for judging the degree of care taken by Caltrans in its pile examinations - also were not detailed.

CALTRANS: "suspect and inadequately tested concrete"

SACRAMENTO BEE: Olson Engineering wrote this about the concrete in Pile 3: "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." Independent experts said that the pile did not receive adequate testing, as the crosshole sonic test was not repeated. Experts also said that sonic tests should have been completed for Pile 8.

CALTRANS: "poor concrete"

SACRAMENTO BEE: Olson Engineering wrote this about the concrete in Pile 3: "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."

CALTRANS: "construction abnormalities"

SACRAMENTO BEE: Abnormalities included an extraordinary amount of defective concrete chipped off Pile 8 and a computer error in the concrete mixing plant that resulted in incorrect amounts of concrete ingredients being used.

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