Fix the pumps

Friday, April 29, 2011

Debris, Part 1

Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

Over the next couple of months, the Corps of Engineers will be trumpeting the June 1, 2011 "completion" of their 100 year protection across the greater New Orleans area, made up of raised levees, big gate complexes, pump stations, and lots of federal dollars. But there's a problem lurking beneath the surface.

At Corps 100 year projects across West Bank of the Mississippi, the dirt being placed on levees is loaded with stuff that isn't dirt. Excessive organic debris and other flotsam and jetsam keeps coming out of the borrow pits with whom the Corps has contracted. And then when it's poured on the levees, it's not picked out by contractors. Also, it appears some Corps personnel are less than diligent about identifying it as well. If there's too much debris in the dirt, it can undermine the integrity of the levee. The Corps specifications for the soil say this:

"All fill materials shall be free from masses of organic matter, sticks, branches, roots, and other debris including hazardous and regulated solid wastes. As earth from the designated excavation areas may contain excessive amounts of wood, isolated pieces of wood will not be considered objectionable in the embankment provided their length does not exceed 1 foot, their cross-sectional area is less than 4 square inches, and they are distributed throughout the fill. Not more than 1 percent (by volume) of objectionable material shall be contained in the earth material placed in each cubic yard of the levee section. Pockets and/or zones of wood shall not be placed in the embankment."

It's the 1% number that is the problem. It looks like some projects might be exceeding it. This debris problem certainly has the attention of the West Bank flood protection authority (officially the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - West, or SLFPA-W), which sends inspectors out to the various contruction sites in its jurisdiction nearly daily. Fortunately for the public, SLFPA-W posts the reports of those inspections nearly instantly, so we have a real-time history of this problem.

This post is made mostly of excerpts from the SLFPA-W inspection reports. There are mounds of such reports going back two years. They represent the best record of construction of the west bank portion of the new hurricane defenses the Corps is throwing up around New Orleans and environs.

One other thing: they are loaded with pictures.

We'll start at the center of concern right now, project WBV-14c.2. That's the Corps' project code. "WBV" stands for "West Bank & Vicinity," the official name given to the string of levees, floodwalls, gates and other defenses running from St Charles Parish all the way over to Plaquemines Parish south of New Orleans.

WBV-14c.2 is a levee project that goes for about 3.5 miles from the New Westwego Pump Station to a point about 1 mile east of the Westminster Pump Station, all in Jefferson Parish. The Corps is raising the levee height most of that length, and also installing sheet pile in some spots. Here's where it's located on the Corps' April 15, 2011 construction progress map of the entire hurricane protection system:


Raising the levee mostly involves putting dirt down. It's more complicated than that, but that's the basic idea. The dirt is drawn from borrow pits all over the metro area. These pits were supposed to put out quality material, but the one feeding this project obviously has not. WBV-14c.2 has had serious debris problems with the dirt pretty much right from the start, yet the Corps and their prime contractor - Phylway - just continue to put the bad dirt down.

Before I go any further, I should mention that this isn't exactly breaking news. The WBV-14c.2 inspection reports are online for anyone to read. Also, this particular project's debris problems have already been called out publicly by SLFPA-W's regional director, Giuseppe Miserendino. At the April 15, 2011 Tulane Engineer's Forum, attended by over 600 engineers and other professionals, Mr. Miserendino gave a presentation on the hurricane protection efforts occurring on the West Bank, and what the SLFPA-W views as successes and worries (h/t to Clay at Nola-dishu).

In a section of the presentation titled, "What's Not Working?" he devoted two slides to project WBV-14c.2, including explicit references to the debris problem:



So all this post does is fill in the details...

The first hints of problems came in the October 15, 2010 report:

"Issue: Unsuitable material needs to be picked up."


Then again in the October 29, 2010 report:

"Issue: Unsuitable material found on protected side of levee."


And once again about a week later, in the November 9, 2010 report:

"Issue: Unsuitable material found on protected side of levee."


These were small pieces of debris that hardly represented a systemic problem at the time. But it kept cropping up in every report - November 22, 2010; November 30, 2010.

Then in the December 13, 2010 report, the SLFPA-W inspectors noticed the debris coming in the dump trucks as they were pouring the dirt:

"Issue: 12/10/2010 - During site visit SLFPA-W representatives watched several tandem trucks unloading along approximate station 88+50 to 78+50 and noticed debris in one of the trucks. Inspected area as dozer was spreading material and found some debris."


Notice these are the pictures in one of Mr. Miserendino's slides from the April 15, 2011 TEF presentation:


Moving on, the inspectors also found debris in an area where dirt was being processed before getting poured:

"Issue: Debris found in processing area. Unsuitables need to be picked out of material."


The report notes that this area was later cleaned of most debris. But there was also unsuitable material all over the site:

"Issue: Unsuitable material found on protected side and flood side of levee from Sta.120+00 to Sta.182+15."


Yes, that's a tire. Sigh.

This sort of thing continued on through the December 28, 2010 report and the January 10, 2011 report.

Things finally broke with an inspection conducted January 19, 2011. We read in the January 21, 2011 report:

"Arrived on site at 7:12am and met with USACE representative (Audie Watson) discussed concerns on project.
- Debris on west end of project coming from the River Birch pit.
- Debris on east end of project from degrading the existing levee.
- USACE representative has previously marked debris with flags and paint.

SLFPA-W and USACE representatives agreed that debris localized in two areas along the flood side. First on the east [sic, should be "west"] end of the project between approximate C/L stations 0+44 and 56+75. The second area is along the degrading operation between approximate C/L stations 119+02 and 129+02 (1000 ft.).

Debris concerns are a high priority ranking. SLFPA-W request a detailed work plan on removal of existing debris within 48 hours or prior to additional lifts. Also, please provide a method to assure that future lifts are constructed without unsuitable materials."

That last paragraph is the line in the sand for the SLFPA-W. To put an exclamation mark on that, the report is filled with 14 pages of debris pictures. Unfortunately, after that, things seem to get worse.

About a week later, some extraordinary work took place. On January 27th, an exercise to determine how much debris existed within the existing levee was conducted. This levee had previously been worked on by the Corps after Katrina, and even further back than that as well. The exercise was to find out how much of the existing levee was debris filled. This was important because some of the dirt scraped, or "degraded," from this existing levee had quite a bit of debris in it. This degraded material was being used as fill on the new levee elsewhere on the project, per the specifications and drawings. For clarification, here's the what the project drawings call for in the area of concern:


In the January 27th exercise, trenches were dug from the top of the existing levee back down the protected side to the toe of the levee. The flood side wasn't excavated. They dug trenches every 500 feet along the levee until they stopped seeing debris. This diagram from the internal Corps report on this activity shows the locations of some of the trenches:


Here's the overview of the January 27th trenching from the January 31, 2011 SLFPA-W report:

"Excavating between stations 180+00 and 125+00. Debris was heavily localized between stations 180+00 and 170+00. After station 170+00 debris in the previously topped material greatly decrease at station 165+00 and debris in the core decreased at station 160+00. At station 125+00 some debris was found through out excavation but not above a manageable amount. All investigation excavation was performed along the protected side slope through the crown section of the existing levee. The flood side slope extending into the new levee slope was not investigated."

The resolution was:

"- Material unsuitable for fill between stations 180+00 and 170+00
- Contractor to remove unsuitable material placed that was degraded between stations 180+00 and 170+00. Material will be stock piled and later removed from site (contractor will wait on written directions from USACE)."

That is, 1000 feet (found by subtracting 170+00 from 180+00) of the existing levee, which had been sitting there for years, had been discovered to be too full of debris. The contractor had used the material degraded from that existing levee as fill on the new job, per the specifications. They would now have to scrape it back off and send it off site.

Curiously, the Corps' internal report on the January 27th activities doesn't recommend removing the debris-laden material at all. In fact, it's silent on what to do with that material. It only addresses what to do with the area of the degraded existing levee. They say to put 2 feet of fresh clay over the area. Frankly, the Corps report and the SLFPA-W report are so different, it's tough to reconcile them. For your convenience, here's the Corps report. The original report was in .docx format, so I resaved in .doc format. I didn't change it in any other way. The original is here.

The SLFPA-W January 27th report is filled with over 100 pictures of debris like this:


However, all this activity was nowhere near the end of the problems. The next report was about nothing but debris. This was a large contrast to the early reports from fall, 2010, when debris was confined to a single comment very far down in the text. Reading between the lines, one can sense the deep concern that this job was going off the rails. From the March 21, 2011 report, which documented a March 17th inspection and included mention of a meeting between the Corps and Phylway about "debris being hauled in fill material:"

"USACE inspector stated that the majority of the debris was localized at both ends of the project. SLFPA-W focused reviewed on the flood side of project, debris was noted as stated by the USACE inspector.
- Area between stations 0+40 to 55+00 contractor was disking to dry out material.
- Review began at station 0+40, amount of debris began heavy and lessened toward station 55+00.
- Area between stations 65+00 to 107+00 (flood side) has a small amount of debris.
- East of pump station crew was noted picking up debris at approximate station 138+00 and working toward station 124+00 (flood side).
SLFPA-W reviewed several areas between stations 124+00 to 175+00 and found wood, brick and concrete debris (reviewed focused on flood side)"

Reading that carefully, I get the impression that - while they agreed during the January 27th exercise the debris was localized on both ends - the SLFPA-W didn't buy it now, two months later. Indeed, the SLFPA-W found debris across the entire project this day. Here's a sample:


There's 75 more pictures like this, just in this report.

The resolution to this was:

"At the meeting between USACE and Phylway handling of debris issue was outlined as follows;
- Fill would not be compacted or tested before USACE representative inspected for debris.
- Contractor to step up debris removal at pit and on site, no testing to be performed until USACE inspector is confident that the contractor's efforts to remove debris are substantial."

Lord knows how much bad material had been placed between the previous inspection in late January and this one nearly two months later. Also, reading report after report filled with promises to address the debris problem while not seeing any progress leads one to believe Phylway and the Corps were perhaps not serious.

Perhaps with that thought in mind, the next inspection took place just a week later, kicking off weekly reinspections of WBV-14c.2 by SLFPA-W. The March 25th report documents a pair of visits on March 22nd and March 24th by SLFPA-W. It is exclusively about debris, and explicitly mentions the concerns about exceeding the 1% organic criterion in the soil specifications:

"Site visit was concentrated on the floodside of the levee from Sta.0+40 to Sta.55+00. Material is being added to the floodside of the levee from Sta.55+00 to Sta.45+00. The material being dumped in this area is filled with debris and will need to be picked out. An abundant amount of small wood chips (within spec size) are being found in the levee section from Sta.55+00 to Sta.25+00. SLFPAW representatives are concerned that the amount of wood chips in this area would be beyond the 1% of organics allowed in the material, but would like USACE Geotech to determine this."

"The material being dumped in this area is filled with debris" - so much for the contractor's promise to step up removal at the pit:


As for the small wood chips:


This would get worse. There would be no resolution of this particular problem for at least two weeks, during which presumably similar soil was being dumped.

The SLFPAW concerns were enough to convince the Corps to send someone to the borrow pit putting out this material:

"SLFPAW representatives met with Wade Wright (USACE) at the WBV-14e.2 site visit later that day. He informed SLFPAW that he will be making a visit to the WBV-14c.2 jobsite today (3/24/2011), and also to the River Birch pit to investigate the debris problem."

And yes, the "River Birch" mentioned here is the same River Birch landfill that is the center of a wide-ranging federal investigation into corruption within Jefferson Parish politics. That investigation has already led to the resignation of three top officials within Jefferson Parish, including the parish president, Aaron Broussard. The Corps is approved to get borrow material from four River Birch-owned pits on the west bank of Jefferson Parish. We don't know which one is supplying the dirt for this proect. What's odd is that earlier SLFPA-W inspections for this project say that the borrow was coming from the Willow Bend borrow pit in Donaldsonville, LA. It is unclear whether WBV-14c.2's contractor Phylway has switched borrow sources for this project, or if they are using two pits, or what.

Anyhow, here's how the SLFPA-W representatives stated their conclusions:

"SLFPAW representatives expressed their concerns about the debris in the material in the levee, and the material that is being hauled in to Jeremy George (USACE). The current lift is being placed on top of a questionable amount of debris before the problem has been resolved; this may raise concerns of acceptability."

That's a gentle way of the SLFPA-W saying, "We think this levee might be crap, and we probably won't accept it from the Corps until it's fixed." This is quite serious.

Just a few days later, SLFPA-W was out to WBV-14c.2 again. The April 1, 2011 report documents a visit on March 28, 2011. They noted there was still debris coming into the site:

"- Site visit was concentrated on the floodside of the levee from Sta 0+40 to Sta.55+00. Debris in the material that is being hauled in from Sta 55+00 to Sta.25+00. Area has not been picked yet but USACE assured SLFPAW representatives that this area would be picked before the next levee lift was placed."

And despite those reassurances, SLFPA-W reiterated their concerns, not just to the local Corps guy, but also to a Major who was on site (a sign of increased attention by the Corps):

"SLFPAW representatives expressed their concerns about the debris in the material in the levee, and the material that is being hauled in to Jeremy George (USACE) and Maj. Kim Giles (USACE). These areas are being picked before the next levee lifts are being placed."

Those pickers would have had to dig pretty hard, as the pictures from this report show the debris had been pressed into the dirt by bulldozers already:


I imagine there's also similar stuff below the surface.

The frequent visits to WBV-14c.2 have continued, with three four more inspections since March 28th. The April 7th visit documented in the April 8th report shows things continue to deteriorate, including a rather alarming expansion of the wood chip problem mentioned in the March 25th report:
"Site visit began on the floodside of the levee between Sta.0+44 to Sta 55+00. The material that is being hauled in contains a considerable amount of debris and is being picked out. Pickers were at approx. Sta.15+00 during site visit. Levee lifts are being placed on top of an abundant amount of small wood chips (within spec size) in this area. Phylway reps informed SLFPAW that USACE stopped hauling of material to this area until the problem is further investigated. Currently, material is being hauled to the south east end of the job for levee lifts."

There's lots of pictures of the areas with the "abundant amount of small wood chips:"


Frankly, it looks like more wood than dirt in some spots there. Who knows what that area looks like below the surface, especially after this problem had been identified two weeks earlier?

The following week SLFPA-W was out at WBV-14c.2 twice - on April 12th and April 13th, as documented in the April 18th report. Things were still bad:

"Site visit began on the east end of the job (Sta.119+00 to Sta.182+00). A considerable amount of large debris, stones, and smaller wood chips was found on the levee section in this area. Contractor informed SLFPAW reps that the area had been sealed due to expecting rains earlier in the week. This area needs to be picked before more material is placed."

Here's why it needs to be picked:


There's over two dozen more pictures just like this in the report.

The area with all the wood chips remained shut down:

"Work remains on hold from Sta.0+44 to Sta.55+00 to investigate problem with wood chips and smaller debris."

And SLFPA-W continued to make their concerns known:

"All issues and concerns were discussed at the progress meeting held that day. Sta.0+44 to Sta.55+00 remains on hold to investigate problem with smaller wood chips. Concerns with larger debris on the east end of the job (Sta.119+00 to Sta.182+00) were brought up to USACE and Phylway representatives."

That brings us to the latest next to latest inspection report we have, the one from April 21, 2011. It describes an effort to characterize the extensive debris problem during an April 20th inspection:

"On 4/20/2011 a geotech evaluation of unsuitable material by volume was held. Samples were taken from 6 areas ranging from the floodside berm to the crown of the levee. (3 from Westwego levee, 3 from Westminister East/West Levee) Results of the test will be available after 1 and a half weeks."

Here's pictures of that sampling:


But other sections of the job continue as if there's no problem, despite ample evidence to the contrary:

"On the east end of the job (Sta.119+00 to Sta.182+00) work continues on enlarging and filling in the protected side berm in accordance with the contract modification to eliminate seepage problems. A considerable amount of large debris, stones, and smaller wood chips was found in this area. Pickers were at approx. Sta.120+00 during the site visit, picking the levee and the flood side berm."



And so on. There's 7 pages of pictures like these, just in this report.

Finally, the most recent inspection report shows the Corps just keeps putting debris-laden material down, as if there's no problems. From the April 29th report of the April 28th inspection:

"Overall review of site visit:
- West end of job (Sta.0+44 to Sta.55+00). Material has been hauled in to this area earlier in the week. A considerable amount of large debris, stones, and smaller wood chips was found in this area. Pickers were at approx Sta.45+00 during site visit.
- At approx Sta.55+00, the levee is being degraded to elevation +3.0' where geotextile will be installed.
- A considerable amount of debris is being found from Sta.68+00 to Sta.112+00 (north/south levee). Material is being added to the protected side berm in this area at approx. Sta.110+00, debris is also being found in this material.
- All sheet piling on the west side of Westminister Pump Station has been driven. Hpiles are currently being driven at monolith F.
- On the east end of the job (Sta.119+00 to Sta.182+00) debris is being found within the levee section and on the protected side berm.

So there's still debris pretty much through the entire job.

After months of what is appears to be very poor quality dirt getting poured on this levee, as well SLFPA-W raising loud alarms over the same period, it still doesn't appear the Corps is doing the smart thing. The smart thing would be to shut the job down completely until the problem is totally characterized, eventually ensuring the levee is being built properly. Instead, they are just pushing ahead so they can meet their vaunted June 1st deadline. Thank goodness for the SLFPA-W inspectors.

It should probably come as no surprise that this is not the only project having these problems. In the next part, we'll start to see how widespread it is.

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