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Newspaper Takes Another Shot at Caltrans' Project Safety Testing

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In the ongoing conflict between the California Department of Transportation and the state capitol’s lead newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, over safety testing of the new east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, the newspaper’s latest claim was that Caltrans has ignored several deficiency assessments of state transportation projects made by an internal engineering team.

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This team, according to the Bee, has been examining safety test results from gamma-gamma testing since December, and the newspaper, through a Freedom of Information Act request, got hold of 1,000 files. According to the Bee, the panel found some “intentional modifications” of data causing “consequential” impact and involved not only the concrete foundation piles of the new self-anchored suspension tower on the Bay Bridge, but also foundation safety testing on several other Bay Area bridges, including the Benicia-Martinez Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge.

How the new claims connect with the work of another, though independent (peer review) panel that Caltrans assigned in November to study the revelations that one of Caltrans’ technical engineers may have falsified data 4-5 years ago about the structural soundness of several transportation projects, including the new Bay Bridge, is not known. The Sacramento Bee released details in its Nov. 13 edition about a long, comprehensive investigation into the work of the technician, Duane Wiles.

What caused the initial uproar, according to the Bee, was the fact that Wiles had fabricated or falsified data from at least three other state projects – a retaining wall at the Braddock Dr. overcrossing on the San Diego Freeway (I-405) in west Los Angeles in 2007, a carpool lane connector between State Route 57 and the Pomona Freeway near Diamond Bar in 2006 and a ramp on the Riverside Freeway at La Sierra Ave. in Riverside in 2008.

Dougherty said that the data problems came to Caltrans’ attention in 2008. Wiles was subsequently transferred to an office-bound position. At that point the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Dept. of Transportation, and the Federal Highway Administration got involved in the investigation, said Dougherty. The OIG’s investigation was based on an FHA draft report that was not available to the public.

In 2006 and 2007, Wiles, along with other technicians, inspected 13 concrete and rebar piles buried under San Francisco Bay. Wiles’ test results were very different in density readings than the other technicians’ findings. The Bee reported that Wiles’ colleagues noted that his use of a gamma-gamma logging device came into question because of his lack of regular equipment testing, which is mandatory.

Besides the peer review panel, leaders of the state senate and assembly committees on transportation are planning hearings regarding the Bay Bridge’s potential safety issues.

On June 15, Caltrans used a live public Webinar to defend its safety testing of a new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge tower foundation, and then called on the Bee to retract its most recent story, which the newspaper refused to do. At issue specifically were testing methods done on two of the 13 pilings that anchor the self-anchored suspension bridge tower section of the new east span. On Pile 3, the subcontractor, Olson Engineering, Denver, did a crosshole sonic logging (CSL) test in 2007 outside of Caltrans’ authority; the test, according to the Bee, conducted four days after the pour found “a large section of concrete that was very poor or not fully set.” Dougherty, in a letter to the Bee, said that the department does not use CSL testing and instead used a gamma-gamma logging (GGL) test that did not find any defects in the concrete and that the concrete hardened correctly after 28 days, the department’s normal testing schedule.

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