Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Bridge story is far from finished

A few months back Charles Piller and his editor, Scott Lebar, wandered into my office to tell me Piller had discovered concerns about the safety testing on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

I'm sure my jaw dropped. Then we talked about how serious his findings were, how he planned to vet them, the care we'd need to take in publication.

Since Piller joined The Bee in early 2009, I've learned to deeply respect how meticulous he is with his reporting. He is as precise and detailed when he talks through a story with his editors as he is when he writes it for you.

That's in sharp contrast to the public response of Caltrans officials to Piller's investigation, published last Sunday. They spent considerable energy disparaging the report rather than taking more seriously still-unanswered safety questions and concerns.

The Bee gave Caltrans plenty of opportunity in advance to explain its management actions and provide documents supporting its contention the bridge and other structures are safe. Instead we received assertions without support, a "just trust us" response that's simply flabbergasting.

Piller reported that Caltrans employee Duane Wiles, who tested parts of the bridge's foundation several years ago – key tests to ensure it was safe – had been caught fabricating test results on other projects. While he was disciplined, he had not been fired. That came after our story published, as did the firing of Wiles' supervisor, suggesting that problems at Caltrans aren't limited to one rogue employee.

Caltrans chief engineer Robert Pieplow told The Bee prior to publication that it would be "irresponsible" to write about concerns that the bridge might not be safe. After we published, Malcolm Dougherty, Caltrans interim director, and Tony Anziano, toll bridge program manager for Caltrans, went live with Piller on KQED Radio. During the show they continued to insist the bridge was safe and made public statements that are contradicted by the Caltrans documents we've gathered.

Pieplow's concerns were included near the top of Piller's in-depth story, along with this sentence: "Outside experts say the bridge tower foundation probably is reliable but suggest further review." Our goal was to cast public light on legitimate safety questions first raised internally by Wile's colleagues but largely ignored. We had two highly regarded outside experts vet our findings. Since this section of the bridge is not yet open, there's opportunity for additional review of the structural integrity of the foundation before it's opened to the public.

Questions remain about the impact of Wiles' work, which touched Caltrans projects throughout the state, because Caltrans has yet to respond to some requests from Piller for specific documents.

Caltrans officials say they thoroughly investigated the work done by Wiles once they discovered he fabricated tests and that all structures are safe. Piller's review of 50,000 Caltrans documents shows otherwise. The Bee has asked Caltrans to provide documentation of its investigation. They have not yet done so even though those documents should be made available to the public.

The Bee also has worked to clarify whether a second layer of testing was done on the Bay Bridge foundation "piles" that Wiles tested.

As Piller reported, two kinds of tests were done on the foundation – the gamma-gamma logging done by Wiles and cross-hole sonic logging tests done by the contractor to further test structural integrity. Piller found that Wiles did not verify the accuracy of his equipment as required before testing. While Piller found Caltrans documents showing that most of the piles tested by Wiles' colleagues were given a second layer of testing by the contractor, he found similar documents for just one of those tested by Wiles.

Caltrans officials told Piller they didn't have documents showing that testing. After the story was published, however, they said the contractor had documents proving the testing was done on a few, but not all, of the structures Wiles examined.

As of Friday, Caltrans had not made those documents available to The Bee.

Bay Area transportation officials last week called for a review of the safety testing and lawmakers said they would hold legislative hearings to review The Bee's findings.

It's going to take awhile for this story to unfold and for all of us to get more definitive word on the structural integrity of the Bay Bridge and numerous other freeway ramps, underpasses and road signs that Wiles touched.

We intend to continue reporting out this story. For public officials, the reviews launched last week are the right first step.