Joyce Terhaar

From the Executive Editor: Bay Bridge probe part of Bee's mission

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Concrete isn't a topic most journalists would choose to cover.

Abused children? Public health? Courtroom drama? All are topics that get plenty of attention in newsrooms.

But concrete? You wouldn't think so, yet the quality of concrete is at the heart of The Bee's ongoing investigation into Caltrans' work on the still-unopened San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Reporting by The Bee's Charles Piller called into question the structural integrity of part of the bridge's foundation, spurring a retraction request from Caltrans and an unusual move this month from The Bee when we publicly announced that the story was accurate, denied the request and published a detailed response to the state agency.

This is about far more than concrete, of course. It's about public safety. It's about holding public officials accountable for how they spend billions of public dollars and whether they are responsive to public concerns. It's about paying attention to whistle-blowers and finding highly regarded independent experts to vet their concerns. We're journalists, after all, not engineers.

And it's about The Bee's investigative mission. While our work helps connect the community and gives you information, that's just part of it. One of our priorities is to hold powerful people accountable for their actions and to investigate community concerns. That's why we will continue our reporting on Caltrans' work.

Working through a retraction demand used to be something we did behind the scenes. We would get a phone call or letter complaining that something we published was inaccurate, and we would carefully review that complaint. If we determined that we had made a mistake, we would publish a correction. If not, an editor or even our attorney would send a letter explaining why.

Much of the time it still works like that. Yet today pretty much every agency, company and even individuals have their own websites, or they tweet or communicate in other ways online. Caltrans officials published their retraction request online, put it out as a news release to the media, and Gov. Jerry Brown's press office tweeted about it.

We responded publicly in an effort to be transparent about our reporting and our analysis of Caltrans' concerns.

While Piller and Scott Lebar, senior editor for investigations, fact-checked this story carefully prior to publication, we again reviewed documents and interviews regarding the points raised by Caltrans. We're not perfect – our published response included information about where we think we could have been more clear for readers – but we determined that the story was accurate and that we would not retract it. (If you missed our analysis, you can read it here.)

This is complicated stuff. That was clear to me reading Piller's stories and again to Bee journalists watching a Caltrans webinar June 15 designed to ease public concerns by explaining how the agency was building the bridge.

It's evident Caltrans takes pride in its work and wants credit for the breadth of it. I understand that. Construction of the new bridge is a massive project and an engineering feat. And hard, hard work.

What I keep coming back to, though, is something Lebar said to me last week. Lebar's father, Stan Lebar, was the man behind the historic live TV broadcast of the first moonwalk, so he always has paid more attention to NASA and rockets than most of us. He pointed out that building a rocket also is a complicated project that requires sophisticated engineering. And it only takes one bad O-ring for it to explode.

Once the bridge opens to traffic, will it be stable if the Big One hits the Bay Area? The independent experts quoted in The Bee's story contend that while Caltrans says the bridge is safe and is overbuilt, more work needs to be done to prove that safety.

Deep foundation experts made practical suggestions reported in Piller's story. Computer modeling could simulate concrete defects to determine how the bridge would respond in an earthquake.

Another option suggested by three independent experts would be to extract core samples of the bridge foundation piles for testing. Such work would pose more serious engineering challenges since the reinforced concrete piles are under a 525-foot tower.

How will Caltrans respond to those suggestions? It's pretty difficult to tell. Caltrans interactions with The Bee have been erratic; Director Malcolm Dougherty initially said the agency would consult with outside experts "to reassure people about the safety of the Bay Bridge." But within days his staff insisted that The Bee print an opinion piece contending The Bee's story was wrong. Dougherty and staff twice canceled meetings to discuss their concerns, choosing instead to publicly issue their request for retraction.

Given this, it's unclear what action the agency will take beyond public statements that the bridge is safe. Brown's office continues to decline any comment about this large agency.

California Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, the chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, plans to hold hearings about the bridge concerns this summer. We'll cover those hearings even as we continue our investigative work.