The new Bay Bridge (left) being built
beside the current Bay Bridge.
Courier Staff Photo
By Charles Piller
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The spire of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge eastern span climbs hundreds of feet above the bay, an emerging icon of California's engineering and aesthetic prowess.
Scheduled for completion in 2013 at a projected cost of $6.3 billion, the bridge is the largest public works project in state history. Its designers placed one quality above all others: the strength to withstand the strongest anticipated earthquake.
Yet a Sacramento Bee investigation has found that the state Department of Transportation (Caltrans) technician who conducted tests to ensure structural integrity of the span's foundation was later disciplined for fabricating test results on other projects. The technician, Duane Wiles, also did not verify that his testing gauge was operating properly, as required by Caltrans to ensure the gauge's accuracy, before he examined parts of the Bay Bridge tower foundation.
When Caltrans officials became aware of the problems with Wiles, they did not thoroughly investigate his earlier work, despite public-safety concerns raised by other test employees and an anonymous whistle-blower. Until contacted by The Bee for comment, Caltrans had not assessed Wiles' work on the Bay Bridge tower.
Although Caltrans says the bridge is safe, The Bee's findings raise questions about its structural integrity that are not easy to answer. Outside experts say the bridge tower foundation probably is reliable but suggest further review.
Questions about Caltrans testing extend to other projects. A Bee examination of nearly 50,000 test documents regarding foundations for bridges, overpasses and other freeway features showed that structures across the state were approved after questionable work by Wiles. In three cases confirmed by Caltrans documents, he fabricated results. Wiles also routinely discarded raw data that provide the best information to detect falsifications.
Federal Highway Administration investigators have begun a detailed investigation of past tests, Caltrans chief engineer Robert Pieplow acknowledged in an interview. He said the U.S. Department of Transportation completed a separate investigation of fraud, waste and abuse in the Caltrans Foundation Testing Branch, and that Caltrans was conducting a similar probe. Caltrans would not release any findings.
In a written statement, Pieplow said that for legal reasons he "cannot confirm or deny the identities of employees," but Caltrans "has identified the full extent of this technician's actions (and) taken appropriate remedial measures." On Nov. 8, three weeks after Caltrans was contacted by The Bee, and less than two weeks after Pieplow issued his statement, Wiles and his supervisor, Brian Liebich, were placed on administrative leave, according to a Caltrans spokeswoman.
Wiles declined to comment and Liebich did not return calls seeking comment.
"As for the Bay Bridge," Pieplow said in a written response to questions, "the (tower foundations) are safe and it would be highly misleading and irresponsible to suggest otherwise." Nor, so far, had federal investigators found falsified test data for the Bay Bridge in its ongoing investigation, he said. The Federal Highway Administration declined to comment.
But test data and engineering diagrams cast doubt on the adequacy of testing and design for the foundation of the span's signature feature, and raise questions about its structural integrity.
Wiles tested seven of the 13 deeply buried concrete and steel shafts, or "piles," that support the Bay Bridge tower for structural soundness in 2006 and 2007.
Wiles' tests, meant to confirm pile strength, showed results roughly the opposite of those captured by other technicians. In all but one case, Wiles' data showed no significant problems, while his colleagues detected many areas of questionable concrete density that required further scrutiny or repair.
Two internationally known bridge-foundation experts who examined Caltrans data files, engineering diagrams and reports at The Bee's request questioned whether any of the 13 piles were tested adequately before their approval and the tower's construction atop them. Part of the problem, they said, was the pile design made the structures extraordinarily difficult to cast and test.
They agreed that the bridge tower piles probably are reliable even with undetected weaknesses, because they were "overbuilt" to withstand a quake stronger than scientists believe will occur on nearby faults. But they disagreed on the degree of uncertainty introduced by testing and design concerns.
"The pile foundations for that structure would be categorized as highly redundant," said Dan Brown, who runs a small but influential foundation design and testing firm and has received numerous honors for his deep-foundation work. "A structural defect in one or two of them would not really be a game changer."
But Bernard Hertlein, a principle scientist at Aecom Technology Corp., a global engineering and construction firm, and co-author of a reference text on foundation testing, said the adequacy of Caltrans tests and of the pile design raise significant questions with no clear answers.
Defects under the main tower would be nearly impossible to detect now, Brown and Hertlein agreed.
"Fixing the foundation in any significant way is pretty much impossible," said Hertlein, who has tested thousands of foundation piles.
Asked how he would address uncertainties about the bridge tower, Hertlein suggested a formal review by top experts to revamp Caltrans procedures to "prevent this level of doubt on any future project." He allowed that that such a plan, combined with Caltrans' assumption that the completed bridge will be reliable, might not soothe drivers who would make about 100 million trips over the span annually.
"That's where the problem gets thorny," Hertlein said. "The only way to reassure the public is to do a complete review, with top notch bridge designers. To look at the design, to assume you do have as much as a 40 percent-flawed foundation, and try and make an educated guess about how the structure would behave in a worst-case scenario."
Caltrans memos show that Wiles' falsification of test data first came to light in September 2008. Foundation Testing Branch engineers were troubled about its implications. The following month, Michael Morgan, one such engineer, expressed 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."
Soon after, he emailed Liebich and Liebich's boss Mark Willian to say that he had taken a quick look at two years of test records, found suspicious data and suggested a methodical examination. Morgan wrote that the work "barely scratches the surface of what could reasonably be called a thorough or comprehensive search for falsified data."
Yet, in a January 2009 memo, Liebich described Morgan's work as a validation of Wiles' other work, and the entire testing branch.
A few months later, a branch engineer found that Wiles had falsified data on a freeway sign in Oakland and a heavily traveled Interstate freeway bridge on the West Side of Los Angeles. Caltrans said both were later analyzed and were found to be safe, but declined to release documents showing its analyses.
Pieplow recently defended the review ordered by Liebich as "thorough," and said it confirmed "the safety of all structures."
Morgan, who conducted much of that review, disagreed. About a year after Wiles was reprimanded, in an email obtained by The Bee, Morgan branded Liebich's exoneration of the testing branch "a well-crafted misrepresentation" with conclusions "unsupported by the facts."
Part of Caltrans' problem involves missing data. Records show that in up to 115 cases, no test files were archived.
Pieplow said that federal investigators said they have not found other falsified data.
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