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Questions Raised on Calif. Bay Bridge Seismic Tests

Wed November 16, 2011 - West Edition
CEG



SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) A California Department of Transportation technician responsible for crucial seismic tests to ensure the safety of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge span is under investigation in connection with testing for major transportation projects throughout the state, The Sacramento Bee reported Nov. 13.

The newspaper said it uncovered falsified safety tests by the technician, who has been put on administrative leave and whose previous work on a busy Los Angeles highway bridge, an Oakland freeway sign and other projects is now being probed by federal and state officials.

At a projected cost of $6.3 billion, the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge is the largest public works project in California history, and it is poised to open for public use in 2013. Engineers have repeatedly stressed the need to ensure the bridge can withstand the strongest anticipated earthquake. The roadway of the existing span partially collapsed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake during the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athetics..

In 2006 and 2007, Caltrans technician Duane Wiles performed tests to ensure the structural integrity of seven of the 13 deeply buried concrete and steel pilings that hold up the new bridge’s tower.

In six of the cases, the Bee said, Wiles’ tests showed no significant problems, although his colleagues found numerous sections of questionable concrete density that needed more scrutiny or repair.

Wiles did not follow a Caltrans requirement to check that his testing gauge was working correctly to ensure its accuracy before testing portions of the bridge’s tower foundation, according to the report. He also has been disciplined for falsifying test results for other projects, the newspaper found.

Even after other testing employees and an anonymous whistleblower told agency officials about Wiles’ earlier work, Caltrans did not look into Wiles’ work on the Bay Bridge tower until the newspaper requested comment, the Bee said.

According to the report on Nov. 13, Wiles’ work on the bridge raises serious concerns about the foundation of the span’s signature spire as well as its structural integrity.

Caltrans said the bridge tower foundation is safe. Chief engineer Robert Pieplow said a review ordered by Wiles’ supervisor, Brian Liebich, was “thorough” and confirmed “the safety of all structures.”

“As for the Bay Bridge,” Pieplow said in a written statement, “the [tower foundations] are safe and it would be highly misleading and irresponsible to suggest otherwise.”

Independent experts told the Bee that although the structure is probably reliable, it bears more scrutiny.

Bernard Hertlein, a principal scientist at the global engineering and construction firm Aecom Technology Corp., said the adequacy of Caltrans tests raised significant questions with no clear answers, since defects under the main tower would be nearly impossible to detect now.

“Fixing the foundation in any significant way is pretty much impossible,” said Hertlein.

The Bee said concerns about Caltrans testing extended to other projects. After examining 50,000 test documents, bridge foundations, overpasses and other freeway features, the newspaper found some structures were approved after questionable work by Wiles. In three cases confirmed by Caltrans documents, he fabricated results, the report said.

Caltrans memos reveal that Wiles’ falsification of test data first came to light in September 2008. Foundation Testing Branch engineer Michael Morgan expressed his concern to branch chief Liebich about instructions to distribute test assignments evenly among the technicians, including Wiles.

“We are putting the reputation and integrity of the [testing branch] at stake,” Morgan wrote. “Our work also can be linked to the safety of the traveling public.”

A few months later, a branch engineer found that Wiles had falsified data on a freeway sign in Oakland and an I-405 freeway bridge over Braddock Drive in Los Angeles. Caltrans told the Bee both were later found to be safe, but declined to release its analyses.

Chief engineer Pieplow said the Federal Highway Administration investigators had launched a detailed investigation of previous tests. He also said the U.S. Department of Transportation had finished a separate investigation of fraud, waste and abuse in the Caltrans Foundation Testing Branch. Caltrans was conducting a similar probe.

Federal investigators had not found falsified test data for the Bay Bridge in its ongoing investigation, Pieplow noted. The Federal Highway Administration declined to comment.

A Caltrans spokeswoman later confirmed Wiles and Liebich were placed on administrative leave. Wiles declined to comment. Liebich did not return calls from the Bee.