Much pressure was brought to bear upon the Corps over the past few months to address the debris problems in the west bank levees, and there have been halting measures to do so. A "tiger team" of other Corps people from outside New Orleans was brought in, they dug some holes in the levee at a single one of the projects (in the wrong spots
), and then dug some more holes (in the right spots) while they literally tried to bury the evidence
, which included a shopping cart and hubcaps. They also promised
Senator Vitter they would add the west bank levees to their third party review process - a process meant to review designs before they're built, not after they're all done and shown to be defective.
But the west bank levees were not designed or constructed in a vacuum apart from the rest of the region. One must ask if the same problems have arisen with the rest of the system. The answer is "Yes."
We know of two large debris fields in the Lake Pontchartrain lakefront levees in Kenner, because the Times-Picayune reported on them in November, 2009
and January, 2010
. In those cases, the existing levee was found to be filled with junk from a site on North Claiborne Avenue in New Orleans. The spoiled soil had been placed there by the Corps in 2000-01. We never heard about any further east bank levee problems after that, and the Corps certainly attempted to give the impression they were isolated - albeit 8000 foot long - cases.
A few months back I noted
the receipt of the reports from the inspectors assigned to Corps projects within the geographic area assigned to the east bank levee authority (the SLFPA-East). I have finally finished plowing through them, and will be presenting what I've dug out over the next few posts. First up is evidence of many more instances of debris in the east bank levees. All the excerpts below are taken from these reports, downloadable at the earlier post.
Let's start at project LPV-104.02 (LPV stands for Lake Pontchartrain and Vicinity, the official Corps name for all the levees on the east bank of the Mississippi). Here's the location of LPV-104.02:
LPV-104.02 is a catchall project involving a few small projects bundled together along the lakefront between the London Avenue canal and the Industrial Canal. One of those little projects was the installation of a vehicle ramp over the levee behind the main campus at UNO (University of New Orleans).
The lead contractor on LPV-104.02 is Quality Enterprises. They were placing the first "lift" of the ramp on the UNO side of the levee in May, 2010 (a "lift" is a layer of dirt, usually six to twelve inches thick). On May 13, 2010, the SLFPA-E inspector wrote the following about his inspection on the prior day:
"1st 6" lift was applied on protected side of the levee. Material from stock pile on LPV-104.01 [adjacent project - ed.] was used for this lift, and placed over the area that was cleared and grubbed 10" to 12" as stated by specifications. The material despite how much was cleared, was filled with small shells. These shells mixed with the material used for the first lift which caused it to have more than 5% debris in material. Material used was also considered to be too wet to pass moisture test, but will be cut up to dry out before next lift would be applied. Billy Rossignol [Corps resident engineer for the project - ed.] was asked to come and make a decision regarding the material being filled with the shells from the site. The decision was made that nothing can be done about this lift and to leave as is."
Isn't that nice? The bottom six inches of the earthwork are filled with shells (at 5 times the specified limit, no less), as shown in this picture from the same report:
But don't worry, they did something:
"Corrective measure will be done to prevent this from happening in the remaining lifts. Corrective action include not stockpiling material on the site, and scraping the surrounding area to move shelled material away from toe of ramp. (40ft offset to be exact)"
Note their "corrective" measures did not correct the actual problem by removing the debris. Their response to that was simply to leave it in place, which it is now.
Isolated incident of debris in the dirt? Not so much. Over at LPV-108 (contractor: Boh Brothers), a lakefront levee project at the exreme end of New Orleans East as shown on this map:
the SLFPA-E inspector wrote in his April 16, 2010 report:
"Corps inspector mentioned being unhappy with the size and amount of rock that is in the soil being used. Will follow up with this."
The follow-up came in the April 27th report:
"The dirt as mentioned in previous report is has not been filtered properly. It is filled with debris and material over the specified allowable size and over the specificed percentage of the material. The Contractor will be getting a formal letter requesting a correction plan from Billy Rossignol."
The inspector included this photo:
along with a caption informing us the material had been placed in the levee, debris and all:
"An example of the size of rocks that have been pulled from the surface of the material. This is a very small amount compared to what is on the surface of the entire project. Also if this is what is on the surface, what is located through the entire soil subsurface[?]"
That's a damn good question. Based on what we've seen at the west bank projects, the answer is probably that the LPV-108 levee had debris inside it.
A couple of weeks later, the May 13th report read,
"Corrective action has been done regarding soil conditions. Boh Bros was asked to remove a 5' wide by 6" deep section of material along the entire wall. Perform compaction and moisture tests on the area. Replace with stock pile material from pit, compact, and test to specifications."
Anyone who thinks the debris only went 6" down, raise their hands.
Just the Corps folks and their contractors? Okay, moving on...
Throughout the spring of 2010, debris was found at three other lakefront projects. At project LPV-103.1A1 (contractor: Aquaterra-CAYO), a levee project located in Orleans Parish between the Orleans Avenue and London Avenue canals...
...SLFPA-E inspectors reported the following:
"Starting to clean out dirt on the west side. The embankment material is full of large rocks and debris which is unacceptable for final use. Process will continue till the material is to specification." (April 20, 2010 report)
"Working on filtering out unwanted material in the back fill that is onsite." (April 30, 2010)
"Continue to remove debris in material on west side of Bayou St. John." (June 17, 2010)
Unfortunately, this is all the information we have from the reports. However, the events at two other projects were described more fully.
At LPV-19.2 (contractor: Phylway), a Jefferson Parish lakefront levee enlargement placement project located on either side of the Causeway:
this got reported on May 5, 2010:
"Found unsuitable material on F/S of levee at stations 409+00 and 419+50. It appears to be an old ramp that was covered up. Once contractor has provided enough material on site to fill the area they will start to do exploratory excavation to see exactly how much material will be removed."
Those locations are just 1000 feet apart, yet the Corps appears to have not dealt with anything in between them, viewing them as isolated instances. Pictures from the report give some more perspective, albeit only on the easternmost debris site at station 419+50, right next to the Causeway:
Te black stuff in the lower photo appears to be about a foot thick section of asphalt.
It is unclear if Phylway covered up the debris-laden area during prior work placing a berm at the base of the levee, or if they were excavating it in anticipation of normal work. Whatever the choronology, it is interesting to see their name on yet another project involving debris.
However, unlike the west bank projects Phylway worked on, in this east bank case, the Corps decided to excise the debris from the existing levee. Subsequent inspection reports tell us Phylway started moving in replacement material very quickly (5/6/10: "Began stockpiling material for areas where they are to remove unsuitable material."), and the removal of the bad dirt started around a week later (5/14/10: "Dug out unsuitable material area near Sta. 419+50. Unsuitable area around Sta. 409+00 still to be dug out."). Photos from the May 14, 2010 report show the excavation:
The dig out of the debris-laden material continued for about a week. The May 20, 2010 report said Phylway had moved to the second area: "Unsuitable material was removed from the F/S of the levee at Sta. 409+00. The area was approx. 150' wide." Photos also show that removal effort:
The Corps had a walkthrough on May 24, 2010 to determine whether Phylway had gotten everything. A third area was actually found with debris, according to the May 25, 2010 report: "Area at Sta. 407+00 near the Severn ramp where unsuitable material was found was dug out some more to remove a little excess that was found during inspection on Monday 5/24/10. Area was reinserted and approved for contractor to begin placing material and bring levee section back up to grade." Here's a picture:
But they declared victory on the other two areas and started backfilling them at the same time. Here's a photo of that backfilling in the May 27, 2010 report:
About a week later, the backfilling was nearly done, according to the June 2, 2010 report: "Work at this reach is almost done with the two sites that had material removed almost rebuilder [sic]."
Other than a single mention buried on page 21 of a SLFPA-E set of board meeting minutes
from May, 2010 (minutes which were not published until two months later), none of this activity at LPV-19.2 was ever revealed to the press or the public by anyone. Given how close these events were happening to the beginning of the 2010 hurricane season, that's understandable from a public relations viewpoint. From a "complete disclosure," "partnership," or "protection of citizens" viewpoint though, I can't think of a justifiation.
But there were even more debris-related problems out at the lakefront besides all these. In April, 2010, debris was found in at LPV-20.1 (contractor: L&S/CKS Joint Venture), the project to enlarge the Jefferson Parish lakefront levee from Bonnabel over to the 17th Street canal. Here's the location of that project:
The first mention was in the April 13th report. It was just one sentence: "Special report filed unsuitable material in Levee." The "special report" was not included with the regular report.
The following day the SLFPA-E inspector reported "follow up" at the site, but gave no details. Reports over the following two days revealed the location (a ramp in front of the Coast Guard station) and the fact that more debris had been found.
On April 19th, it was revealed the Corps held a walkthrough to decide whether enough debris had been excised to allow the ramp to be rebuilt. This report (by a different inspector) also included much more detail:
"The USACE held a final walk through to approve the removal of unsuitable material in the Ramp and Levee. After a second check of levee the levee was deemed to be clean. The material that was removed will be stockpiled at Williams Blvd. Boat Launch. The plan is to use the material in foreshore protection. The USACE is still waiting on redesign of ramp."
This report also included photos, which show how extensive the dig out was. The photos are shot looking east toward the 17th Street canal, progressing from the protected (land) side of the levee to the flood (lake) side:
It's that last photo - showing the LPV-20.1 debris removal effort was not confined strictly to a protected side ramp, but also involved the flood side facing the lake - which is the most disturbing by virtue of the caption: "Flood side of levee any remaining large chumks [sic] of concrete
will be removed."
"Large chunks of concrete?" Yikes.
Like the debris problems at LPV-19.2, this also got a single mention in the SLFPA-E board minutes, in this case on page 16 of the April, 2010 minutes
. There was nothing else.
That's five different projects across two parishes with debris problems in the spring of 2010, almost none of which was revealed to the public. In the next part
we'll discuss even more projects where debris was found as recently as last spring, after the Corps declared the system 100-year ready.