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Investigation Into Testing Raises Questions About Integrity of New Bay Bridge Span

| November 15, 2011
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Justin Sullivan/Getty

There have been a lot of hoopla and photo ops around the construction of the Bay Bridge’s new East Span, scheduled for completion in 2013.

But Sacramento Bee reporter Charles Piller this weekend threw cold water on the celebratory drive to completion with his investigative piece questioning the testing of the structural integrity of the bridge’s new Eastern Span. Caltrans has fired two employees over the scandal, but the Bee report seems to indicate this may be only the beginning.

You can read Piller’s long investigative report here, or for a good summary, look at the edited transcript of Piller’s appearance yesterday on KQED Radio’s Forum, after the audio of the show:

Charles Piller

We’re talking about a variety of problems. Falsified data is the most troubling. We know in at least three circumstances that data was proved to be falsified by a technician at Caltrans responsible for testing the foundations of a variety of freeway structures.

We also know there were irregularities in both the design and the testing of the Bay Bridge main tower. There is no evidence at this point that data were falsified associated with that tower, however, because the design and the testing concerns are significant, experts I’ve spoken to suggest a review be made of this tower to ensure its safety.

Unfortunately the response from Caltrans has been mostly to assert that the structures, including the Bay Bridge tower, are safe, without providing evidence to suggest they’ve done the proper analysis to ensure that safety.

We did a close review of 50,000 testing documents, memos, personnel files, and evaluations of Caltrans data associated with bridge testing. We found many of their responses are directly contradicted by their own testing documents.

We found that structures all over the state of California were tested by an individual, Duane Wiles, known to have falsified data on at least three structures.

He also failed to validate the function of the test instrument, a complex precision instrument that requires daily verification of its proper functioning in order to provide reliable data. Since he didn’t do that on the Bay Bridge and on many other structures over a period of years, there are experts who believe it calls into question the validity of the test results. In many cases he gave a clean bill of health to structures that were tested improperly.

There are a couple of other really troubling aspects that I’ve been hoping Caltrans can respond effectively to but haven’t so far. One is that the portions of the Bay Bridge Tower foundation tested by Wiles were not tested with a second testing technique that could have allayed many of the concerns associated with those piles. For some reason Caltrans did not test those piles that he was responsible for with a second testing technique.

Secondly, the technicians at Caltrans including, Mr. Wiles, for years and years did not save the raw data files associated with their tests. These are the most important part of determining whether other fabrications took place. So what Caltrans is asserting is that no other fabrications took place, but they don’t have the data files that could validate their claims.

Caltrans also claims a very thorough investigation was made once the first falsification was found in 2008, so that the tests were evaluated very carefully by their own internal investigators. But I have documents by the very people who were involved directly in conducting that so-called evaluation who describe it as cursory, as completely inadequate, and that Caltrans has grossly misrepresented that process.

Michael Krasny

How safe will the bridge be?

Charles Piller

The point here is that there’s some uncertainty in these structures in question. Caltrans disputes that strongly. But the experts we talked to were mixed on the degree of uncertainty these questions about the design and testing of the bridge piles would place on the structure itself. It’s unrealistic to retest or to replace or additionally support those piles because of the engineering difficulties and cost. No one is saying this bridge is unsafe; what we are saying is that because of these gross irregularities and irresponsible management and irresponsible testing procedures over a period of years, it’s reasonable to have an expert group take a look at this data, reassess the degree of uncertainty that might have been introduced, look at it under a worst-case scenario, and reassure the public if possible that this structure is completely safe and reliable.

Malcolm Dougherty, Interim Director of Caltrans

It is true that we did have a problem with one individual in terms of falsification of data on three structures, none related to the Bay Bridge.

When this came to light, we initiated an investigation internal to the Division of Engineering Services, the unit that runs the foundation testing. We also conducted an audit and investigation, internal to Caltrans. That progressed into an investigation done by the Federal Highway Administration’s Office of Inspector General. There was a progression of investigations done.

Michael Krasny

You’re pretty confident about the results?

Malcolm Dougherty

We reviewed everything this individual has been working on back to 2004 to see if there were any anomalies, any evidence of falsifications. We reviewed all the foundation testing on the Bay Bridge as well.

Michael Krasny

But why the firings only after the story broke?

Malcolm Dougherty

The firings also coincided with the conclusion of the investigation. Shortly after the first information that we had on the first falsification, he was moved from his job duty so he wasn’t completing actions related to the safety of inspections. He was reassigned. But then there was a period of letting the investigations play out before action was taken.

Tony Anziano, toll bridge program manager for Caltrans

Obviously my focus is on the Bay Bridge. There is absolutely no evidence of any kind that there was any falsified data with respect to the testing performed on the tower foundations for the Bay Bridge. If you look at the article, it’s pretty clear they understood that, but they wanted a front page so they burrowed down into the avenue of design.

He cited two so-called experts to support his point that there were irregularities in design. It’s kind of late in the game to be bringing that up. That design was thoroughly vetted both internally and externally and we have an independent panel of experts in place since day one who have taken a look and they’re very content with the design. So there is no evidence of any problems with respect to the Bay Bridge tower foundations.

Also, the Bee today held a live chat with Piller, who answered questions about his investigation. Click below to see a replay of the event.

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