Fix the pumps

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Making it up as they go along

The Corps gives updates on the outfall canal remediation projects (those are the projects to raise the Safe Water Elevation, or SWE, along all three outfall canals to 8 feet) every month to the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - East (SLFPA-E). SLFPA-E has been good enough to upload the slides from those presentations to their website. Here's links for the ones I've seen thus far:

late March, 2011 (at end of report)
late April, 2011
early June, 2011

The June update includes this information on the 17th Street project:
"Reach 16 Surveys being conducted to determine if improvements are needed"


"Reach 16 may need 6” to 18” of embankment at the toe of the levee, determination will be made after the survey is analyzed."

When I first read that, I thought it was good, because I had remembered there was a sub-8 foot SWE reach along the 17th Street canal that wasn't included in the original remediation plans. Then I went back and looked and realized it was actually Reach 30:

So where is Reach 16?

It's across the canal from Reach 30, down south of the I-10 bridges:

The Corps included pictures of it in the presentation:

Reach 16 was not included in the 17th Street canal remediation project when the contract was awarded in December, 2010. But now the Corps is saying extra dirt might be required at the toe of the levee (the part of the levee at its bottom where it goes from sloped to flat), and is even including pictures of the Reach 16 toe.

The changing Safe Water Elevation of Reach 16

So what's going on with Reach 16? The main chart of Safe Water Elevations on page 12 of the October, 2010 17th Street SWE report (report and all appendices here) shows the Safe Water Elevation for Reach 16 was the bare minimum of 8 feet, meaning no remediation was required:

So if the SWE was 8 feet, based on seepage considerations, what's the problem?

A clue comes from further inside the report. These types of reports are written from the inside out, with the individual results sections compiled first, and then the introductory and conclusory sections written around them. Those "outer" sections are the ones written last and which have the heaviest attention paid to them during editing, because they are the sections most likely to be read (who except crazies like me reads the whole report?).

So when one reads the introductory and conclusory sections, one finds this unambiguous statement reinforcing the main chart:
"Seepage was not found to be a concern on any reach of the 17th Street canal for an SWE below +8.0 feet."

But when we look at the individual section on the seepage results, we find this chart on page 124:

The actual calculations originally resulted in a seepage SWE of 7.5 feet, 6 inches below the 8 foot target. A SWE of 7.5 feet may have meant more remediation along the canal (theoretically, though we've seen the Corps ignore other sub-8-foot calculations). Reach 16 is 1615 feet long, so that's a lot of remediation.

So how did the SWE jump from an unacceptable value of 7.5 feet to the barely acceptable value of 8 feet? The report itself provides the rather bizarre answer, but first there's a brief detour to explain (in my rudimentary understanding) how seepage works.

The (very) basics of seepage

To help, here's a diagram of the layers of various soil along Reach 16:

This diagram is taken from the calculations for "slope stability," not seepage. The diagram for seepage doesn't include such clear delineations of the different soil types, so I grabbed this one.

As you can see, there's a thick layer of sand - shown in green - underlying the whole thing. I've noted that the bottom of the canal is at -9.4 feet, while the sand starts at -9 feet.

On the "protected" side - i.e. the non-canal side in Jefferson Parish - there's stronger, less permeable soil overlying this sand, both within the levee and next to it. That's the stuff shown in yellow and orange, labeled either "Marsh," "Embankment Fill," or simply "Fill." Below the sand is a layer of pretty impermeable clay, shown in red and brown. And at the top of the diagram is the I-wall, which penetrates down to -1.5 feet, or 7.5 feet short of the top of the sand layer and 44.5 feet short of the clay layer.

For seepage to occur, water from the canal must contact the sand surface directly. It must then travel through the sand to the protected side. For it to truly be a problem, though, it must exert an upward force against the protected-side soils which is greater than the force exerted downward by the weight of those soils. If it does this, then a connection like a pipe is made between the canal and the land side, and the foundation underneath the levee and floodwall can be quickly undermined.

In Reach 16's case, it would seem the first part of a potential seepage problem - a canal bottom lower than the top of the sand - is in place. The bottom of the canal is 0.4 feet into the sand layer. This condition is referred to by the Corps' consultants as an "open bottom," and Reach 16 is not the only reach along the 17th Street canal to exhibit it. Indeed, Black & Veatch analyzed five other reaches with survey data indicating an open bottom: 15 (later split into 15A and 15B), 31, 32, and 33. All these are reaches near the I-10 or Veterans bridges:

These calculations, while quite complicated in their guts, are simple in concept. The canal is modeled from known survey data. Water is placed in the canal up to the target SWE of +8 feet and to a maximum of +10 feet (the Corps limited SWE calculations to 10 feet of water, even though the walls are much higher). If the resultant calculated safety factor is above the prescribed safety factor for the particular type of failure under study (global stability, slope stability, gap, seepage, etc, each of which has its own safety factor), then the reach under consideration passes.

In the case of all those other "open bottom" reaches, Black & Veatch was able to load the canal up with water to an elevation of +10 feet and not fall below the Corps' seepage safety factor of 1.6.

But for Reach 16, Black & Veatch could only load the canal up with water to an elevation of +7.5 feet before they fell below the 1.6 safety factor. Just for reference's sake, the canal was able to be loaded up to +10 feet on Reach 16 for all the other types of failures Black & Veatch was looking at. So seepage was what is called the "controlling" criterion for Reach 16.


Now, there's one other thing that can mitigate against seepage. That is stopping the canal water from getting to the sand in the first place. All three outfall canals have sediment along their bottoms, carried there from the city's streets and drainage tunnels and pipes. It is deposited there constantly, and especially when there's a rainstorm and water is pumped along the canals out to the lake.

I wrote about this sediment in 2009, when I based an entry on the 2007 iteration of the 17th Street SWE report. That report indicated sediment was quite thick along the entire canal. However, those thickness readings were based on soundings, not direct borings into the canal bottom. In addition, the 2007 report did not characterize the sediment at all, including its permeability or how much of it was mixed in with sand. The October, 2010 report notes (and this is quite important) that the Corps has still not measured the sediment, referred to as "fine grained materials:"
"[T]here are no borings in the canal to confirm the thickness of the fine grain materials over the beach deposits."

This is a yawning gap in the data required to completely analyze seepage.

As noted above, a number of reaches were analyzed as "open bottom" reaches. With regard to sediment, that likely means that Black & Veatch and the Corps made a judgement that the sediment blanket along those stretches was too thin to stop the water flowing through the direct connection exposed by the top of the sand layer being above the bottom of the canal. In addition, Black & Veatch also noted six other reaches - 14, 17, 18, 29, 30, and 34 - which had thin sediment layers, but whose canal bottoms were apparently not below the top of the sand layer. These weren't analyzed as open bottom reaches.

So they were making judgements about the thickness of the sediment layer throughout the preparation of the report. But how did they do so when they had no detailed canal borings to confirm those thicknesses? Where was the hard data?

Detailed borings of the sediment along the London Avenue canal bottom in 2010 led to a radical recasting of SWE calculations there, essentially restarting the engineering effort and eventually leading to the inclusion of many reaches in the remediation project along that canal which had previously been thought safe. Yet, no similar effort was undertaken along the 17th Street canal (or the Orleans Avenue canal for that matter).

So with no detailed information on the sediment overlying the beach sand at the bottom of the canal along Reach 16, and with a calculation showing a sub-8-foot SWE along that reach from seepage due to an open bottom, how then did the SWE jump 6 inches to 8 feet? What was that judgement based upon?


This is where it gets bizarre.

Instead of either:

a) using the lack of detailed sediment data to take the conservative course - assuming an open bottom along Reach 16 and sticking with with the 7.5 foot SWE within the seepage section of the report, or

b) revealing the source of their heretofore undisclosed sediment thickness data,

Black & Veatch and the Corps chose a third course. They startlingly reached back almost 30 years to rebut their own seepage calculation. The report starts describing a December, 1983 test along the 17th Street canal's Reach 16 to determine whether a direct sand connection existed at the canal bottom. This test took place ahead of 1984-85 dredging of the canal by the Sewerage & Water Board, before the later walls were designed and built. The test was used to help get a permit from the Corps for that dredging. Presumably, reassuring the Corps that the canal would not be undermined by seepage during the dredging would go a long way toward getting the dredging permit. Since the dredging happened, it clearly did the trick.

In fact, seven years later, as part of the now-discredited 1990 17th Street canal design document which led to the placement of the I-walls destined to fail in 2005, the Corps themselves used the report of this test in the same way: to rebut concerns about seepage. Thus, it is beyond surprising to see it resurrected here to do the same thing a third time - rebut concerns about seepage - as if nothing had happened in the intervening decades.

Nonetheless, two whole pages of the 2010 report are devoted to blithely describing the 1983 test, recommended by Eustis Engineering to the then-consulting engineers on the dredging, Modjeski & Masters (Eustis still does millions of dollars of geotechnical work for the New Orleans District). The complete report on the 1983 test can be found within volume 2 of the 1990 Design Memorandum 20 (or DM-20), the base design document for the 17th Street canal walls. Scroll to page 78.

In 1983, at Eustis' recommendation, a 100' by 100' square area in the middle of the canal was excavated to expose the beach sand. Also, at Eustis' recommendation, piezometers were installed on the land side of the Reach 16 levee, just south of I-10. These piezometers sensed the water elevation in the soil below. If there were a seepage connection between the water in the canal and the piezometers outside the canal, changes in the canal water elevation would be reflected in the piezometer readings. Similar arrangements were a part of the 2007 London Avenue canal load test.

According to the 2010 report, during the 1983 test the water in the canal went up 0.41 feet while the sand was exposed on December 16, 1983, but the piezometers outside the canal either went down or remained unchanged. The 1983 test authors also noted that the test location was partially covered in sediment on the 16th, and that the entire location was covered in sediment three days later. To Eustis, this demonstrated that there was no seepage connection, either from the sediment cover or because there just wasn't one. Frankly, their reasoning is quite muddled.

However, Black & Veatch accepted the "no seepage" finding of the 1983 test, while including a token suggestion that before the SWE for Reach 16 is finalized, "a sampling program be performed to determine whether a [sediment] blanket exists at this location." But nowhere in the 2010 report does it indicate such a sampling program took place before the SWE for Reach 16 was raised to 8 feet in that same report. Indeed, there was no such sampling program during the 1983 test either. It appears that the 8 foot number came about directly - and only - as a result of Black & Veatch and the Corps accepting the findings of the 1983 test as gospel. It's like they just willed it into being. This is supported by the footnote on the master SWE chart on page 12 of the report: well as the plain text of the 8 foot SWE in the main chart itself. This was stunning for me to read - a consultant in 2010, using the Corps' incomplete, muddled pre-Katrina design data to support a conclusion not supported by the post-Katrina data record, a data record also lacking key pieces of information. It's almost like they were looking for any shred of evidence that might support their pre-made conclusion that seepage could not possibly be a problem, their own calculations be damned.

I was not the only one to notice this.

Behind the scenes

On a consultant-written report such as this one, after the report is drafted it is sent to lots of people outside and inside the Corps for comments. They use a system called "Dr Checks" to log those comments, the responses, and the responses to the responses. Thus, the Dr Checks printout is the sort of document the public almost never sees - the official record of the internal engineering debates that go into the formation of these reports.

When I got the October, 2010 17th Street and Orleans Avenue reports, I was stunned to find the Dr Checks printouts were included as appendices (the London Avenue report didn't have one). The Orleans Avenue one runs 159 pages (complete Orleans Avenue report and appendices here). The 17th Street one is significantly shorter - just 25 pages long.

That doesn't mean the 17th Street Dr Checks printout is any less valuable. In fact it contains a brief but vigorous debate over seepage along Reach 16.

Keep in mind the Dr Checks comments are based upon draft versions of the report which we don't have. Thus, sometimes the comments mention a criticism which - when one reads the final report - it is clear eventually got addressed. Nonetheless, this particular chain of comments is extremely enlightening.

The comment chain starts with Noah Vroman, a Corps seepage expert working at the Corps' Engineer Research & Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Mississippi. Vroman's name has popped up often in the past few years in the many reports generated on seepage concerns along the London Avenue canal.

On July 23, 2010, Vroman says of Reach 16,
"I calculated a FOS [Factor of Safety] of 1.2 at a WL [Water Level] of 10.0"

He is noting this because the acceptable seepage safety factor is 1.6.

Black & Veatch geotechnical engineer John Koontz is the first to reply to Vroman, on August 7th:
"This reach was reviewed. A full scale canal seepage test was performed by excavating the beach deposits. No response was observed at the toe. The report is in DM-20 Vol. II. Discussion of this test has been added to the report."

As noted earlier, the "toe" is the section of the levee at the bottom, where it goes from sloped to flat. It is generally the most vulnerable section, because there's less soil there than at the top.

Also as noted above, "DM-20" is the 17th Street Design Memorandum, or the official design document underpinning the floodwalls and levees which failed in 2005.

As to the substance of Koontz's comment, we can surmise that the description of the 1983 test had not been included in the draft version Vroman was reviewing in July.

Vroman responded on September 23rd with one of the longest Dr Checks comments I've seen in these documents. From the date and the context of the comment, I surmise this September 23rd comment is based upon a subsequent draft, which we don't have. Note that I've added paragraph breaks to Vroman's comment to make it more readable:
"Do not agree with response.

I believe key elements of the results of the test section are not adequately addressed in the revised SWE report. The test section that is reference[d] was conducted in 1983 due [to] concerns with dredging operations in the canal that could potentially expose beach deposits in the canal. Eustis Engineering Company provided expertise and guidance for the test. They concluded from the test that "the possibility of blow out during high-water conditions in the canal is probably slight" and additional monitoring during dredging operations should be conducted. It is obvious that Eustis Engineering was concerned after the test that a "blow out" condition could still occur."

Let me pause here and point out that additional monitoring was conducted during that dredging. Piezometers were installed outside the canal as the dredging advanced along the canal between December, 1984 and April, 1985. They didn't really show any evidence of seepage. However, there was no characterization of the canal bottom as part of that monitoring.

Returning to Vroman's comment:
"The key elements that should be included in the SWE report concerning seepage and the canal test are:

- This was not a full canal test but merely monitoring an area where the possibly [sic] of exposing the beach sand was likely.

- after excavation of the test section, a boring was taken just three days later and there was 2.7 ft to 4 ft of sedimentation above the sand. The authors of the test section report indicated that this sediment was the likely reason the piezometers did not respond to changes in canal water elevations.

In addition, the authors of the test section report also indicated that the beach sand at the bottom of the canal was possibly contaminated or mixed with fines and "sealed" the bottom of the canal."

Based on the final text of the 2010 report, it appears this information was not in the September draft, but was included in the final report as a result of this comment.

Vroman continues:
"Thus it is important for the SWE evaluation analysis to consider whether this sedimentation layer exists within this reach. The same diligence used on the London Avenue SWE report for seepage concerns and sedimentation in the canal should be used in this reach.

Regarding this SWE report and the condition of the canal in 2010 and beyond, does a reliable sedimentation layer exist above the beach sand that will prevent adverse seepage conditions?"

And there it is - the critical question. Essentially, "what hard data do we have on the sediment?" And he's not asking for what was known in 1983 about a 100' by 100' section, but what is known along the entire canal - today. As was demonstrated on the London Avenue SWE effort, complete characterization of the sediment is unbelievably critical to understanding seepage. Since there has not been any comprehensive effort to do so along the 17th Street canal, it is only conservative to stick with the results from the "open bottom" calculations, which gave the 7.5 foot SWE for Reach 16. And, more importantly, the lack of that current, comprehensive sediment data brings into question how correct the seepage calculations are for the entire canal.

Vroman didn't just bring this up on the 17th Street report. We find him asking the same questions about sediment (also called "silt") on the Orleans Avenue report, because - like along the 17th Street canal - there was no comprehensive characterization of canal sediment at Orleans either. From a comment on the Orleans Avenue Dr Checks printout marked "this item flagged as a critical issue:"
"Different approach was used in Orleans canal as opposed to London.

For the London analysis, silt layer in the canal was critical feature for seepage and was deemed nonexistent if silt is less than 2 feet thick. For Orleans no canal side investigation was performed to determine the thickness of any impervious layers above the sand. This aspect is very critical to the analyses.

For Reach 1, there is only about 1.6 feet of marsh shown above the sand. This assumption was made purely on survey data and assuming the [base of the] marsh is constant between borings 200 feet apart (east bank and west bank). I think using this approach would warrant more conservatism than used for London. Anything less than 3 feet thick should be assumed to be nonexistent and direct connection to the bottom of the canal could be possible."

Vroman's comments on the Orleans Avenue report appear to have won the day, as his concerns about seepage led to the seepage calculations getting redone to include consideration of an "open bottom" on Reach 1 and other places. And on Reach 1, seepage was found to be to be the controlling criterion. In fact, sheet pile is being driven there to completely cut off the seepage path as part of the Orleans Avenue remediation project, as shown in this photo from the June update:

Of course, without a comprehensive characterization of the sediment along the Orleans Avenue canal, doubt remains about many of the other seepage calculations.

The outcome on the 17th Street canal report was quite different. The Black & Veatch SWE project manager, Larry Almaleh, responded to Vroman's 17th Street comment on October 1, 2010, just before - or perhaps the day of - the report's final issuance:
"The SWE for a FOS of 1.6 for an open bottom condition at this location as identified in the report is elevation +7.5 [feet]. Based on the identification of a significant sedimentation at the base of the canal and the lack of response in the piezometers raising of the SWE to +8 is not unreasonable. Note in multiple meetings and corresondence B&V has been told there is no seepage concerns in the 17th street canal by the HPO and the external review group."

Nowhere in the report is a precise identification of "significant sedimentation" outside of the 1983 test actually named or described.

But most telling is that the Corps ("HPO" is the Corps' Hurricane Protection Office, co-located with the New Orleans District) had apparently told Black & Veatch the result of the seepage calculations before they were done: "B&V has been told there is no seepage concerns in the 17th street canal by the HPO..."

I thought Black & Veatch was supposed to be reporting to the Corps on seepage concerns, not the other way around?


So stepping back from all this, it looks to me like there was a ton of handwaiving going on around the seepage concerns at the 17th Street canal's Reach 16 specifically, and along the entire 17th Street canal generally, possibly on orders from the Corps Hurricane Protection Office in New Orleans. And while Vroman's comments apparently got an expanded description of the 1983 test added to the final report, it didn't change the underlying fact that Black & Veatch and the Corps were solely relying on a nearly 30-year-old test from a discredited document to support their pre-reached conclusion that seepage was nothing to worry about along the 17th Street canal.

So not surprisingly, despite calculations and the Corps' own non-New Orleans-based experts pointing to the absolute need to fully characterize the depth and composition of the sediment along the canal bottom, not to mention possibly remediate the 1615 feet of Reach 16 because of seepage, Black & Veatch issued their report in October, 2010 with the conclusive statement,
"Seepage was not found to be a concern on any reach of the 17th Street canal for an SWE below +8.0 feet."

That conclusion then flowed directly into the scope of the remediation project along the 17th Street canal. Until this most recent project update nine months after the SWE report was issued and seven months after the remediation contract was signed, there has been no effort to address seepage along the canal, including at Reach 16. All the remediation efforts are geared to other concerns like overall stability.

The way the Corps and Black & Veatch got to that outcome - even if they are possibly correcting it now - should make people very queasy. How could anyone in good conscience use nearly 30-year-old incomplete 17th Street design data and ignore post-Katrina data collection and calculations to support conclusions about the canal's safety in the present day? After all that has transpired, and after all the Corps' pronouncements that they've changed, it looks like more of the same over five years later.

Reach 16 to be fixed anyway?

That brings us full circle to the June remediation project update, which mentions that the Corps is now looking at putting 6 to 18 inches of dirt at the toe of the levee along Reach 16, based on surveys of the reach. That toe is undoubtedly the point found vulnerable in the Black & Veatch seepage calculation that found the 7.5 foot SWE. Thus, if more soil is piled over it, presumably water carried through the sand by seepage would not be able to push up and cause a failure.

Of course, the only definitive solution to stopping seepage is not piling more dirt on the landside, but driving of 60 foot steel sheet piling into the clay layer along the entire reach. In fact, that has been how seepage has been controlled everywhere else, including on both the Orleans Avenue and London Avenue remediation projects. I assume the Corps thinks that's too expensive or time-consuming or embarassing to do so along the 17th Street canal, so they are proposing a band-aid of a slightly thicker levee toe. It's a half-measure that doesn't fully address the problem.

The June update does not make clear whether the survey is of the canal bottom or the levee. We can hope it is of the canal bottom. Perhaps this is the "sampling program" given a token mention in the 2010 report? Indeed, we can hope there is a comprehensive effort underway to characterize the sedimentation along the canal bottom, and that effort will lead to a recasting of the engineering similar to what happened along the London Avenue canal last year. Since this update is about a month old, we should know whether those hopes are just that within a couple of weeks.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Debris Part 7

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

One would think after having massive debris problems exposed on the front page of the paper, as happened on June 12, 2011, the Corps and their contractors would be moving heaven and earth to eliminate those problems before the next time the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - West inspector came knocking. One would be wrong.

This week we got a look at the report for the first SLFPA-W inspection to occur after that article appeared (inspection date: June 17, 2011) at deeply troubled project WBV-14c.2 (contractor - Phylway, dirt source - River Birch). The debris has been so bad there that I've devoted two entire entries to it (Parts 1 and 4) and the Times-Picayune's Paul Rioux had it in a featured role in his article.

Despite all that attention, nothing has changed at this project, and that includes the bizarre Corps paranoia during SLFPA-W inspections. The report begins:
- SLFPA-W reps met with Jeremy George (USACE) at the construction trailers at 7:11am. Work progress was reviewed and USACE conducted site visit. Chad Thibodeaux (USACE) arrived on site at 7:43am, and remained 50yds behind other participants of site visit."

There's even pictures of this behavior following this description:

I don't know if the guy in the top picture is Jeremy George or Chad Thibodeaux, but it doesn't really matter. Their behavior during this inspection appears to have been only slightly less looney than during the June 10, 2011 inspection:
"SLFPAW reps arrived at the construction trailers at 10:22am and met with Jeremy George (USACE), Chad Thibodeux (USACE), Lauren Fagerholm (USACE), and Susan Poag (Times-Picayune). USACE conducted site visit while remaining 50 yds behind SLFPAW reps. USACE also video-recorded SLFPAW reps throughout site visit."

So, moving on from the Corps melodrama, here's what the June 17th report says about the project:
- East end of project (Sta.182+00 to Sta.120+00):
The levee in this area is up to elevation 13.0' on the ends of this section, and elevation 12.0' in the middle. A considerable amount of concrete and wood debris was found in the levee section during site visit. Pickers have not yet picked this area.

A 6in lift has been placed from Sta.120+00 to 157+00 on the protected side berm in this area. A considerable amount of wood debris was found in this area during site visit. This area had not yet been picked. Sta.161+00 to Sta.171+00 of the protected side berm had been picked and compacted by the contractor earlier in the week.

- North/South Levee and protected side berm (Sta.109+00 to Sta.70+00):
Sta.109+00 to Sta.89+00 of the levee in this area had been fine-graded and is acceptable. A few stones and wood debris were found throughout the remaining levee section and the protected side berm of this area. Jeremy George (USACE) removed most of debris immediately.

- West end of project (Sta.55+00 to Sta.0+00)
A 6in lift has been placed on the protected side berm of this project from Sta.29+00 to Sta.11+00. Some small stones and wood debris were found in this area. This area has not yet been picked. No further degrading of the levee has taken place in this area."

Put simply, there's still debris throughout the site. There's no excuse for this when other projects are able to report no debris problems.

As is usual with reports from WBV-14c.2, there's mounds of debris pictures. This time around, they take up 22 pages. Here's a sample:

This project just needs to be shut down. After nearly nine months of unrelenting reports of debris coming from it, it's appears the Corps and the contractor aren't interested in addressing the problem.

The debris problems continue elsewhere. In Part 5 we noted that WBV-14a.2 (contractor: Purnell), a 3 mile long levee project on the west bank of the Harvey canal, has had its share of debris problems. They continue, as documented in the June 6, 2011 report of the SLFPA-W inspection on June 3, 2011:
"SLFPA-W began site visit at approx. Sta.964+50 where geotextile was being installed in this area at elevation 1.0'. Lift 8 is being placed on top of the geotextile. A 12 man picking crew was out picking debris from the material that was being hauled in."

A twelve man crew sounds like progress. However,
"No work has been done since last report [on May 23, 2011] from Sta.935+00 to Sta.951+00. The debris in this area will be picked before the next lift is placed."

"SLFPAW expressed their concerns about the debris being hauled into the jobsite. USACE rep assured SLFPAW that all material will be picked with the same 12-man crew."

"We know we've said a gajillion times the debris will be picked up before the next inspection, but this time we really mean it! So don't pay attention to this:"

And that's what we can see on the surface.

The quote above mentions the prior WBV-14a.2 report. So what did that report, from May 23, 2011, say about this area?
"3rd lift was being placed and disked between approximate stations 935+0 and 941+00. The crew was working ahead of the material being placed and appeared to be removing all of the debris. SLFPA-W and USACE reviewed area between the picking crew and the material being placed and found it free of debris."

So debris showed up on June 6th in an area that was being picked and appeared clean on May 23rd. Is it possible the Corps and their contractors have been playing a shell game with debris picking? That is, when the SLFPA-W inspectors are out, do the Corps and their contractors deploy debris picking crews (sometimes), or claim the area will be picked by the next visit? I ask because when the inspectors do their due diligence at the next visit and check the claims of debris picking, they find it was all a show.

The following inspection of WBV-14a.2 (on June 14, 2011) also included an appearance of a picking crew:
"Sta.973+00 to Sta.960+00. Contractor is currently picking this area and preparing for another lift."

Here's the picking crew at work:

The report also says:
"Sta.973+00 to Sta.960+00 was examined by SLFPA-W reps and is clean enough for the next lift to be placed on top of this material."

Due to the brevity of this report, it is unclear if the inspectors revisited the section of the project noted for debris in the June 6th inspection report (Sta.935+00 to Sta.951+00); it only notes no work had taken place there since the last inspection. Also there aren't any debris photos in this report. Both of those appear to be because SLFPA-W inspector David Roark was not along on this inspection. He tends to write very detailed reports and take lots of pictures.

So it appears the debris problems, while perhaps lessening at some projects, remain severe at others. This does not bode well.


Friday, June 24, 2011

WCC pumping shortfall alleviated slightly

[Updated July 7, 2011. See end of post]

As I reported earlier this year, the Corps and their contractor on the West Closure Complex (Gulf Intracoastal Constructors, or GIC) were unable to have all 11 of the pumps installed and running on June 1, 2011 (see the earlier post for the basics of the West Closure Complex, or WCC). We know from press coverage and the SLFPA-W reports filed by Danny Caluda that 8 of the pumps passed their wet and dry testing just before the deadline. Fortunately, it appears the clause within the specifications that would have allowed the wet tests to be waived has not been activated.

The pumps are numbered 3 through 13. Pumps 1 and 2 were eliminated from the design as a cost saving measure, and the remaining 11 pumps were redesigned to make up the flowrates of the removed pumps.

Pumps 6 through 13 were the ones declared ready on June 1, 2011 after their tests. Now pump 5 has passed its wet testing.

Mr. Caluda tells me the successful 4 hour wet test took place on June 14, 2011, meaning there are now 9 of 11 pumps available for stormwater removal on the west bank.

The modeling done by the Corps in connection with the consequences of the pumping shortfall is summarized in this table from the Interim Standing Instructions attached to the WCC Water Control Plan:

Water elevations behind the stations are shown in the left hand column. The reason they stop at 8.2 feet is that is the elevation when stormwater - pumped from local pump stations into the the detention basin formed by the Harvey and Algiers canals - would overflow the floodwalls and levees along those canals. This table assumes two things:

1) The floodgates at the WCC are closed, necessitating turning on the WCC pumps to remove the stormwater from the detention basin

2) The local pumping stations are pumping continuously the whole time, a circumstance the Corps calls "unlikely," but we all know what happens with events the Corps calls "unlikely."

Along the bottom row of the table is the total amount of time for that overflow to occur. It happens because the WCC has no spare capacity built it; it can only keep up with the local pumping stations with all 11 of its pumps on. As you can see, with only 8 pumps it would take a little over 17 hours for the local pump stations to overwhelm the WCC pumps and send water into neighborhoods (either over the floodwalls or because local pump stations would be shut down). The addition of a ninth WCC pump buys over 8 more hours.

Mr. Caluda says pump no. 4 is next up, but not for at least two more weeks.

[Update - July 7, 2011

According to Mr. Caluda, Pump 5 is due to dry tested July 7, 2011. Details on the specifics of dry and wet testing can be found here.

After that, pump 4 is anticipated to be wet tested on July 19, 2011. Testing dates for pump 3 are currently unknown.]

Brief update on London Avenue pumps

For much, much, more information regarding these pumps, two others at 17th Street out at the same time, and the contracting and repair activities surrounding them - including pictures from Conhagen repair reports - see the previous post, "The 2011 pump rebuild scramble."

That post includes all the information on the last eight pumps to be repaired before June 1, 2011.

As I reported in May of this year, hydraulic pumps W5 and W6 at the London Avenue closure site were removed for complete rebuilding in late April, likely on the 26th. Here's the empty slots:

We can tell these pumps were pulled out because we can see the bottom flanges of the elbows unattached to any pumps below them. We also don't see the distinctive piping extensions added to the pumps in 2007, as we could on the adjacent pump W4.

I can report that W5 and W6 went back in at the end of May:

This means that 11 of the 12 hydraulic pumps at the London Avenue site have been overhauled due to severe corrosion of all their internals:

None of the contract documents received from the Corps as of July 13, 2011 indicate pump W2 was ever pulled out.

Also, it must be emphasized that the "reliability" shown in the graphic above only refers to the corrosion status of the pumps. It does not address any of the issues uncovered by Ms. Maria Garzino or myself.

Steve Beatty of The Lens contributed to this report.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

Debris Part 6

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

In the last part of this series, I noted that at least 8 Corps hurricane protection projects spanning 21.9 miles of west bank levee had been found to be contaminated with disturbingly large amounts of debris, including wood, rocks, concrete, bricks, and steel:

This information is thanks to SLFPA-W inspectors (provided by the state of Louisiana) who have been scrupulously documenting the problem for months.

On Sunday, June 12, 2011, the Times-Picayune's Paul Rioux had an excellent article on the front page about the whole debris issue. Titled "West Bank levee work faulted for excessive debris in dirt," the article hit all the high points this series has covered over the previous five parts, while filling in a number of holes. The best part is it did so much more concisely than I have. The T-P's editorial board followed up with an editorial two days later emphasizing the importance of overcoming the persistent debris problems across the west bank.

The article began with the unveiling of debris project number 9: WBV-3b (contractor: Shavers-Whittle). It's a little over a mile long on the east bank of the Harvey Canal, as shown on this map:

The project is substantially complete, so the 2011 inspection record has been understandably scanty. Most of the inspections took place during construction in 2009 and 2010. The last inspection in 2010 noted debris in the completed levee. From the July 13, 2010 report of the July 8, 2010 inspection:
"Ruts, organic matter, concrete/rocks and grass issues. (south end to gas line)"

"Ruts, organic matter, concrete/rocks and grass issues. (gas line to levee/flood wall transition)"

A few debris pictures were included:

The T-P article describes a piece of debris dug out by SLFPA-W employees on Monday, June 6, 2011:
"While inspecting a nearly finished levee south of Harvey on Monday, West Bank levee authority officials spotted a chunk of wood protruding near the levee’s crown, so they grabbed some shovels and started digging and digging and digging.

Twenty minutes and two broken shovels later, they had unearthed a log the size of a typical suitcase.

'If they’ve got a 200-pound log buried in that levee, it makes you wonder what else is buried there,' said Giuseppe Miserendino, the levee authority’s regional director. 'How does your quality-control person miss something that big? What else didn’t they catch?'"


So even though the publicly available record doesn't indicate debris problems, I'm still going to add WBV-3b to the map:

[Note: On June 15, 2011, just three days after the Times-Picayune published their article, SLFPA-W inspectors returned to WBV-3b to continue the pre-final inspection they started on June 6, 2011, when the log described above was unearthed. From a letter sent by SLFPA-W President Susan Maclay to the Corps on July 15, 2011, we learn that there were multiple trailers' worth of debris dug out of the WBV-3b levee that day. SLFPA-W inspectors got this photo of a log in one of those trailers:

That looks much bigger than the one featured in the Times-Picayune.

But what is way worse is what we can see when the camera pulls back:

Clearly, there are substantial debris problems with the completed levee at WBV-3b. There's more on this in Part 8 of this series.]

Regarding quality, Rioux got a quote from Julie Vignes, the Corps' top person on the west bank:
"'We will make sure everyone is comfortable that the levees meet the quality mark that we all want,' [Vignes] said. 'We have a very good working relationship with the levee authority inspectors. They find things, we find things, and we work together to resolve them.'"

We'll discuss the considerable issues with quality and the Corps' skewed view of it later. But it is worth pointing out how that "very good working relationship" gets expressed on the ground. Exhibit A comes from the latest SLFPA-W inspection report of deeply troubled project WBV-14c.2. This inspection is the one the Times-Picayune's Susan Poag photographed for the article on June 10, 2011. The report begins:
"SLFPAW reps arrived at the construction trailers at 10:22am and met with Jeremy George (USACE), Chad Thibodeux (USACE), Lauren Fagerholm (USACE), and Susan Poag (Times-Picayune). USACE conducted site visit while remaining 50 yds behind SLFPAW reps. USACE also video-recorded SLFPAW reps throughout site visit."

Susan Poag's photo of this inspection indeed shows one of the Corps personnel holding a video camera.

I guess the Corps is so high on their working relationship with SLFPA-W, they wanted to record it for all posterity and replay it when they were feeling blue.

But seriously, we've seen this sort of paranoia before. Remember this Corps employee photographing The Lens' Steve Beatty on October 12, 2010?

Mr. Beatty was photographing a rusty hydraulic pump being pulled out at the Orleans Avenue closure structure. The Corps doesn't like people watching them, and their first creepy instinct seems to be to photograph the watchers to get - I don't know - something incriminating? I don't get it.

Anyhow, WBV-14c.2 plays a feature role in Mr. Rioux's article. It is one of the worst projects for debris, with multiple avenues for non-clay material to find its way into the new levee, and constant reports dating back to last fall documenting many debris issues. The T-P article focuses on just one of those issues - wood chips.

We looked at the SLFPA-W reports on wood chips from March and April of this year in Part 1. The T-P refers to the March 24, 2011 inspection record:
"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 report includes pictures like this:

Rioux's article notes:
"Corps specifications permit isolated pieces of wood as long as they are shorter than 12 inches, have a cross section less than 4 square inches and comprise no more than 1 percent of the levee material’s volume.

Miserendino said corps officials assured him the wood chips did not exceed the 1 percent threshold. But he said a team of 10 state geotechnicians determined April 1 that the chips amounted to 1.8 percent of the material in some spots, nearly twice the corps’ limit."

The state wisely did not trust the Corps to do their own analysis. I have a copy of the final report done by the state's consultant here.

Here's the Corps' Ms. Vignes' response from the T-P article:
"Vignes said that the overall average was less than 1 percent and that the tests indicated there was a 'very small' chance the wood chips would cause the levee to settle prematurely."

Slabbed had an interesting reaction to this quote:
"Julie hon, if we stuck one end of you in an oven at 500 degrees and the other half of you in a vacuum chamber at -400 degrees your overall average temperature is a comfy cool 50 degrees. Levees, like your body need complete continuity (in the case of levees that of quality construction) to survive intact and you of all people should know that."

My response is a little less heated. Taking a look at the actual report, we find the state's consultant, GeoEngineers of Baton Rouge, took six samples on April 20th (it appears the Times-Picayune got the date wrong) and analyzed them for wood content. their findings on the numbers are unambiguous:
"Wood content ranged from 0.1% to 1.8% by volume and 0.01% to 0.03% by weight, based on total volume and weight (soil + wood)"

There was no "overall average" reported. Ms. Vignes was totally just making that up.

In the T-P article, Vignes continued:
"Noting that the levee is being raised in layers up to a foot deep, she said the inspectors arrived before workers had picked debris from a new layer of dirt."

"Vignes said the corps determined the material was from a new pit that, as is often the case, had roots and other woody debris near the surface. She said the pit had been excavated deep enough that the debris was no longer an issue, so the contractor continued using it."

So here's the Corps explanations:

a) Yes the amount of debris is over the 1% specification, but only in a relatively tiny portion of the levee. If you look at the whole 3.5 miles, it's fine! This is known as the "Tony Hayward" defense.

b) Also, SLFPA-W came early. They didn't give us a chance to clean the place up!

c) Finally, the borrow pits had wood chips, but they don't now. So ignore all those reports and pictures of other wood, rocks, concrete, bricks, and steel before, during, and since this particular wood chip problem.

I don't think Corps Public Affairs will be putting Ms. Vignes in front of any more reporters. Also, if her quotes indicate how the Corps gets the levees to "meet the quality mark that we all want," it seems clear that "quality" desn't mean the same thing in Corps-speak as it does in the real world.

Mr. Miserendino ably rebuts Ms. Vignes' last two arguments in the T-P article:
"Miserendino said wood chips were present at each of the authority’s subsequent weekly inspections. "Every time we questioned the amount of debris, the response was always the same, 'Oh, we haven’t picked it yet,'" he said."

Indeed, the next SLFPA-W inspection report, from the March 31, 2011 inspection says:
"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."

But the wood chips persisted. Two weeks after the March 24th inspection, they were widely distributed. The report on the April 7, 2011 inspection noted:
"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."

The pictures tell the tale:

This report further undercuts Ms. Vignes' reasurances. Even when some debris was being picked up, most of it was still getting buried into the levee.

Mr. Rioux's article finally notes that no matter what the Corps says, the debris problems have continued unabated at WBV-14c.2, noting the June 2nd report says "debris throughout the jobsite continues to be an issue."

After the article was published, an even more recent report was made available. It is from June 10th and like the June 2nd report, it's more of the same. In addition to the palpable mistrust between the Corps and SLFPA-W ("USACE also video-recorded SLFPAW reps throughout site visit"), the same old debris concerns are there:
- East end of project (Sta.182+00 to 162+00):
A noticeable amount of debris was found on the protected side berm and on the levee in this area. USACE informed SLFPAW reps that this area had not been picked yet.
- East end of project (Sta.162+00 to Sta.120+00):
A noticeable amount of debris was also found on the protected side berm in this area. Sta.150+00 to Sta.162+00 had been picked earlier in the week. Sta.150+00 to Sta.120+00 had been picked a few weeks prior to inspection.
- North/South levee (Sta.70+00 to Sta.112+00):
A fair amount of debris was found on the levee section in this area.
- West end of project (Sta.15+00 to Sta.0+00):
Inspected area where contractor had stopped degrade operation. A small amount of debris was found was found on top of the levee in this area."

Just as Mr. Miserendino predicted, the Corps claimed the "area had not been picked yet." To which I - and likely the SLFPA-W inspectors after all the other times they had heard that - would ask, "Why the hell not?"

You could almost hear the SLFPA-W inspector sigh as he typed the wrap up of the visit:
"Debris throughout the jobsite continues to be an issue. East end of project (Sta.182+00 to 120+00) will need to be picked again; including areas that were picked earlier in the week. North/South levee (Sta.70+00 to Sta.112+00) will need to be repicked prior to seeding of the levee in this area. West end of the project (Sta.15+00 to Sta.0+00) where degrade operation had stopped will need to be re-picked also."

The SLFPA-W inspector reinforces the point with 21 pages of pictures of rocks, wood, and other detritus like these:

I'm sure the Corps got great video of those pictures being taken.

Further details on the copious problems at WBV-14c.2 can be found in parts 1 and 4 of this series. Those problems would seem to be tightly wound up with the contractor on the project (Phylway) and the dirt supplier (River Birch).

Rioux's article provides confirmation of the link between the River Birch pits and the multiple debris-laden projects in which Phylway has been involved (see Part 5 for specifics on those projects), while providing more detail:
"Officials with Phylway Construction of Thibodaux, which has a $28.8 million contract to raise the [WBV-14c.2] levee, did not return a message seeking comment.

Vic Culpepper, River Birch’s technical director, emphasized that the corps approved all three of River Birch’s pits based on soil tests.

"In the past five years, we’ve supplied more than 2 million cubic yards of clay to more than 20 levee projects on the West Bank and never had an issue," Culpepper said. "That tells me the clay isn’t the problem."

He said River Birch simply leased a portion of one of its pits to Phylway, which excavated the dirt itself.

"How they process or handle it is up to them," Culpepper said. "I’m not saying they did it right or wrong, just that it wasn’t our responsibility."

Having seen the amount of debris in the dirt coming out of the River Birch pits, the argument they should be trusted because they have supplied 20 projects does not give a warm and fuzzy feeling.

Also, the mention of the lease between Phylway and River Birch firms up my suspicions about a contractual relationship between the two firms, but that doesn't seem to matter as River Birch's Culpepper seems more than willing to throw Phylway under the bus at the first question from a reporter.

Finally, River Birch's claim of "no issues" to a reporter, when it has taken subpoenas and FBI raids to get information out of River Birch in the federal investigation, is absurd in the extreme. I doubt they would reveal additional unpublicized problems to a reporter writing an article documenting the problems that have already been publicized through numerous inspection reports available on the internet.

Rioux's article notes the power of those inspection reports by recounting an incident involving the May 10, 2011 SLFPA-W inspection of project WBV-17b.2:
"Inspector David Roark concluded that the levee authority’s 'concerns about the debris appear to have been disregarded to meet the June mandate' to provide protection from a 100-year storm by the beginning of the just-begun hurricane season.

Miserendino said the scathing report elicited a series of calls from the corps official overseeing the project to try to rectify the problem.

'After we called them out, the contractor hired more people to pick debris,' Miserendino said. 'They handled that quite well.'"

I must say that story sounds good. The WBV-17b.2 inspection reports show a slightly more nuanced set of events. After the May 10th report, there were actually more pictures of debris in the next report (30 vs. 29), though the debris in the subsequent report does seem to be smaller.

As noted in Part 5, that following WBV-17b.2 inspection, on May 23, 2011, featured the Corps inspector - Larry Pryor - pushing to finish the levee in advance of the June 1 deadline, and the SLFPA-W (represented by David Roark) insisting (rightly) that it's not acceptable.
"Overall review of site visit:
Levee is completed to construction elevation with the exception of two areas. The first at the east entrance levee construction crossing for WBV-72 and the second at the discharge pipe construction crossing for WBV-76.

USACE inspector expressed that the contractor believes the levee has been constructed to plans and specs and is ready for seeding; after reviewing the levee it appears to still have high and low areas along the top and sides of the levee. Also, debris was found along the top and sides of the levee.

Before seeding, the levee needs to be graded, compacted and the debris removed (wood and concrete)."

So debris was still in the levee, even after the Corps sent more folks out there to clean it up:

As I mentioned above, these appear to be somewhat smaller debris pieces than the ones shown in the May 10th report, perhaps pointing to the increased efforts to pick debris reported by Mr. Miserendino. However, the effect of increased attention to debris was undercut by obvious wavyness of the levee:

Since the T-P article appeared, another WBV-17b.2 report has been made available. The report on the June 9, 2011 inspection, shows that the impact of the May 10th report was probably temporary. The report says:
"- The crown and side slopes of the levee still contains high and low areas which will need to be corrected. Unless the contractor believes the levee is construction to plans and specs there should be grade stakes along the project for control points for final grade and compaction.
- Rocks/concrete and wood debris still exist; need to remove before seeding."

"Debris, mostly rocks/concrete was noted during today's visit. SLFPA-W and the USACE representative picked up and placed most of the found debris in small piles along the levee."

The debris photos (17 of them, admittedly fewer than before) show the rocks and concrete:

And the wavyness in the levee remains as well:

Based on the reports since May 10th, it appears the Corps and the contractor (Healtheon) remain ultimately unresponsive to not only debris concerns, but also other major issues of quality.

Mr. Miserendino and the SLFPA-W insepctors have good reason to worry about such quality issues. Mr. Rioux's article notes:
"Miserendino emphasized that the debris problem isn’t so severe that he fears a catastrophic levee failure could put people’s lives and homes at risk. Instead, he’s worried the unsuitable material will cause the levees to subside prematurely, sending the authority’s maintenance costs skyrocketing.

'Do I think these levees are going to blow out? Do I think they’re going to fail? No,' he said. 'But do I think we could face a significant maintenance nightmare that will cost Jefferson Parish taxpayers a lot of money? Yes.'"

Mr. Miserendino's concerns about maintenance dollars are legitimate, since the SLFPA-W is currently looking at future bills for maintenance of this system which they know they cannot afford. Any additional problems would distract from keeping the good stuff maintained.

Also, I have to note that Mr. Miserendino may be slightly optimistic, since we don't really know what else is in these levees. According to their reports, the SLFPA-W inspectors only started clamping down on debris in the last half of 2010, but levee construction has been going nearly continuously since 2005. Indeed, on troubled project WBV-14c.2, the existing levee - which was being used to build the new levee - was so contaminated with debris that the dirt from it was ripped off the project and thrown away. How many other spots like that - of which Mr. Miserendino and the public are unaware - lie beneath the miles of levee under construction the last six years?

Put this together with the Corps videotaping the SLFPA-W inspectors, the unending problems with debris on multiple projects, the blatant ignoring of SLFPA-W inspectors' documented concerns, the need for the SLFPA-W to go to the paper to get their concerns heard, and the Corps' relentless, ultimately failed drive to finish on June 1, 2011. Despite what the Corps claims, it is clear the relationship between the Corps and the SLFPA-W is toxic, and that the Corps' side is powered not by a desire to do things right - or even according to their own specifications - but to just do things fast with little regard to quality and lots of deference to contractors' wishes over those of the SLFPA-W. I know no one likes having their mistakes pointed out, but Mr. Miserendino says it best at the end of the T-P article:
"'We’re not going to get another bite at the apple. We’re not going to have another $14 billion dropped on us,' he said, referring to the total cost of post-Hurricane Katrina flood-protection improvements across the New Orleans area. 'We’ve got one shot at this, and we’ve got to get it right.'"


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Still to come

A while back I reported briefly on what I believe was a massive outage of the Corps' control and monitoring systems (called "SCADA" systems) along all three New Orleans outfall canals in December, 2009.

The entry was based on a massive amount of SCADA data (multiple gigabytes) I received through FOIA requests of the Corps New Orleans District. The data covers about two years' worth of readouts from every level gauge and every sensor on every pump along the the London Avenue canal. It also covers about a year's worth of the equivalent data on the 17th Street and Orleans Avenue canals. The London Avenue data runs from mid-2008 through mid-2010, while the 17th Street and Orleans Avenue data runs from mid-2009 through mid-2010. The data is logged every ten seconds.

Due to how the Corps preserves and overwrites this data, I believe I am probably the only person that now has this information. It includes run data for four of the six storm-related closures of the Interim Closure Structures since 2006. That is, I've got data every 10 seconds during the two closures at the London Avenue canal in September and November, 2009, as well as the two 2008 closures at London Avenue (Gustav and Ike). The data doesn't include the 17th Street closures during Gustav and Ike. I've also got data on every time the pumps were turned on during the mid-2008 or mid-2009 (depending on canal) through mid-2010 period noted above. This likely represents the only true data on how the Corps' lakefront pumps actually run. I should be able to match it up with the pump logs I've obtained from the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board, showing how much water was pouring into the canals when the Corps pumps were supposed to be pulling it out.

Prior to this, the only other run data released to the public was a highly redacted set of partial data for the 17th Street and London Avenue canals during Gustav and Ike, sent to Molly Peterson as part of a FOIA request for her 2009 "Pumps Under Pressure" report. With my SCADA data, I'll be able to see if the data sent to her was valid.

I'll be bringing out some analysis around this soon. It's a lot of data to crunch, so it takes a while. But maybe this will answer some questions that have lingered for a very long time...

Friday, June 03, 2011

Debris, Part 5

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 12
Part 13
Part 14

The record in dealng with debris has been mixed throughout the Corps' projects. Let's look through the system, courtesy of the inspection reports prepared for the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority - West.


Some projects appear to have moved past the problem. Earlier, we noted WBV-12 (a project titularly awarded as task order to the much larger West Closure Complex contract. The WCC prime contractor is Gulf Intracoastal Constructors, which is actually Traylor Brothers and Kiewit. However, WBV-12 was actually immediately subcontracted to Phylway, who we will find out is behind many of the debris-laden projects.) having debris problems dating back to the beginning of the project last fall all the way through March of this year. From the April 4th report on March 28, 2011 inspection:

"Debris was noted in several areas between the sheet pile driving operation and the first location of embankment work. As debris was found the USACE inspector placed debris in the back of his pickup truck. Between approximate stations 170+00 and 175+00 SLFPA-W noted debris in surface being covered by current lift and in material being placed, no personnel was monitoring area for debris. SLFPA-W continued to approximate station 138+00 were the second location of embankment work is ongoing. Debris was noted in the surface being covered by current lift as at the previous area of embankment work. The truck spotter did remove debris as SLFPA-W began taking pictures.
Overall I believe that since the current lifts are being placed on a surface containing debris, then how much debris was not removed?"

The debriefing summary also noted:

"At the second location the truck spotter began picking up debris when SLFPA-W was photographing debris."

Subsequent inspection reports have better news:
May 3, 2011 report of April 25, 2011 inspection:

"The debris found today was excavated from the flood side along the slurry trench installed. This material is to be hauled off and replaced with compacted material. Overall debris issue has diminished to nil. Truck spotters still utilized to remove during dumping operation. USACE inspectors to insure that the current method of removing debris continues."

And the May 23, 2011 report of the May 16, 2011 inspection:

No issues at this time. Debris no longer an issue, minimum amount was found during today's visit."

That's good. But the question asked in the report on the March 28th inspection is still hanging out there:

Overall I believe that since the current lifts are being placed on a surface containing debris, then how much debris was not removed?"

Moving along, we find other projects are still dealing with debris.


WBV-14a.2 is a 3 mile long hundred year levee project on the west bank of the Harvey Canal:

The lead contractor is Purnell Construction, though a company named Hill Brothers also claims it. It's likely Hill Brothers is subcontracted to Purnell.

Before moving on to the debris problems, I must admit to some confusion regarding the scope of this project. Why is the Corps building a 100-year project behind the West Closure Complex (WCC), when they claim that the WCC is supposed to take all these floodwalls and levees out of the line of fire of a hundred year storm? In fact, there are two other 100-year projects immediately to the north and south of WBV-14a.2 (WBV-38.2 and WBV-23), both of which also lie behind the WCC. This seems like money that could have been better spent elsewhere, using the Corps' reasoning. After all, many of the other projects behind the WCC - including the projects just across the Harvey Canal from these - are not up to the 100 year standard, so why do these three get that treatment?


WBV-14a.2 has had reports of debris problems through May. During a May 5th inspection documented in the May 9, 2011 report, there was this:

"Debris in current material being placed"

This is followed by 3 pages of debris pictures:

The report also notes:

"Debris in material previously placed and being topped by current lift. SLFPA-W noted two man crew picking up debris."

So debris was getting buried. That's very bad. Also, a two man crew is too small for such work.

The above comment was followed by another 7 pages of debris pictures:

From the pictures, it is clear the debris is not just organic, but also includes rocks or some other inorganic material.

Understandably, SLFPA-W came back just about a week later. On May 13th (documented in the May 16, 2011 report), this is what they found:

Overall review of site visit:
USACE inspector [Wade Lucas] expressed that the contractor has stepped up debris removal from a two man crew to a seven man crew along with a crew removing debris at the pit (River Birch). Once the material is on site the material is picked through three times before the next lift is installed, first time during dumping and spreading operation, second time during the disking process and compaction and the third time during disking before placing the next lift."

As I said, a two man crew was too small.

Also note that a River Birch pit is mentioned again. We heard about debris coming out of one of the River Birch pits on WBV-14c.2 as well.

The report continues:

"Reviewed area between approximate stations 959+00 and 972+50; 6th lift has been placed. The amount of debris is considerably less in the 6th lift than noted previously during the placement of the 5th lift.

Reviewed area between approximate stations 935+00 and 951+00; 1st lift has been placed. Debris crew picking up debris in this area during visit. Several large pieces of wood was noted along with one large rock. Area also contains a considerable amount pieces of wood. The amount and size of debris found is substantial to warrant concerns that the contractor should put forth more effort in the removal of debris in this area."

Let's stop right here and read between the lines. The report starts with the Corps inspector's rather glowing description of the contractor's (that's Purnell or Hill Brothers) efforts at debris removal. Then it moves on to the reality that shows those efforts aren't worth very much.

If SLFPA-W inspectors are finding all this during weekly inspections, what exactly are the Corps folks doing when the SLFPA-W isn't there, especially during the months when SLFPA-W wasn't devoting its limited resources to stepped-up scrutiny of such projects? We've got dozens of reports of SLFPA-W inspectors finding large bunches of debris through many projects and over many months. How is this possible? Isn't the Corps paying its contractors and its Quality Assurance/Quality Control folks to keep tabs on this? Are the Corps folks and the contractors really acting on behalf of the public, or strictly on behalf of the contractor?

The SLFPA-W has similar concerns, as the report notes:

"Although the contractor appears to have stepped up debris removal operations, SLFPA-W has concerns with lifts 1 through 4 in area placed before the additional debris removal efforts were in place between approximate stations 959+00 and 972+50. A substantial amount of debris was noted in the 4th lift in the last report, which in may still exist.
SLFPA-W has concerns that with 250 plus trucks per day bringing in material and the amount noted today; the contractor needs to put forth a greater effort in monitoring and removing of debris."

Translation: SLFPA-W believes this entire new levee may be shot through with debris, and it is the fault of the contractor and the Corps. The SLFPA-W inspector includes 6 pages of debris pictures to make his point.

That brings us to the most recent inspection of WBV-14a.2, which took place May 23, 2011 and was documented in the May 30, 2011 report:

"SLFPA-W observed during today's visit that the contractor's nine man crew with supervision removing debris from material on site. The crew was working ahead of the material being placed and appeared to be removing all of the debris. SLFPA-W and USACE reviewed area between the picking crew and the material being placed and found it free of debris."

So they went from two men, to seven men, to nine men. What were they doing for the months before the SLFPA-W started zeroing in on them? Likely nothing.

Continuing with the report:

"Reviewed area between approximate stations 959+00 and 972+50; lift 7 has been placed to an elevation 1.0'. SLFPA-W and USACE reviewed approximately 600' of this area and found large pieces of wood debris. Later the contractor informed SLFPAW that the area has been disked but the debris in this area has not been removed.

Reviewed area between approximate stations 935+00 and 951+00; the 3rd lift was being placed and disked between approximate stations 935+00 and 941+00. This is in the area that the debris crew was observed picking up debris. The current material appeared to contain less debris but several large pieces were noted and the contractor removed them immediately."

The SLFPA-W wraps it up with this:

"SLFPA-W reiterated has concerns between approximate stations 959+00 and 972+50 with lifts 1 through 4 that were placed before the additional debris removal efforts were in place. A substantial amount of debris was noted in the 4th lift during placement of the 5th lift in the 05-May-2011 report, SLFPA-W needs verification that this debris has been removed."

I seriously doubt they will get such verification without tearing the levee apart.

Here's a sample of the debris SLFPA-W found on May 23rd:

By the way, this project doesn't look anywhere near complete, despite the Corps saying it was 100-year ready.


WBV-14b.2 is a 3 mile long stretch of levee between an area near Lapalco Blvd to a point near where Highway 45 runs alongside the west bank levees. Here's the exact location:

It's a zig-zag section of levee. The project involved mostly shifting the centerline of the new levee toward the protected (land) side from the existing levee. Some sections of the new levee would simply be built directly over the existing levee. The new levee would be built with dirt from both borrow pits the existing levee, the same as adjacent project WBV-14c.2.

The borrow apparently came from one of the River Birch pits. The SLFPA-W inspector noted in the January 18, 2010 report on his January 13, 2010 inspection:

"The contractor is using River Birch as their borrow source."

This report was long before SLFPA-W became concerned about debris. However, about a year later the situation would be far different. With the SLFPA-W noticing copious amounts of debris on projects all over the west bank, they arrived at the WBV-14b.2 worksite on December 9, 2010 to find this:

"Debris was found throughout the flood side of levee and heavy in the berm area. During inspection the contractor began pushing embankment material from the protected side over the levee to the flood side. SFLPA-W representative noticed that dozer working material to the flood side was burying debris, as noted in issue #8. The protected side contains some debris but not as heavy as the flood side. Contractor had no one picking up debris in "area of work".

That's about as bad as it gets. The report contains 26 pages of debris photos like these:

We don't know if the debris came from the existing levee or from the River Birch pits. Either way it's not good.

The report also contains pictures of the contractor burying the debris, as described above. The debris appears to be large sheets of rusty steel:

Considering the contractor (Creek Services) was willing to do this in full sight of the inspectors, it's a good bet this had been going on the entire year the project was under construction up to that time. It's too bad SLFPA-W only concentrated on the debris problem in December, though, because the project was nearly done at that point.

Subsequent reports as the project wound down noted some progress, albeit mixed. The December 28th report of the December 21, 2010 inspection said:

"Very little debris was found on flood side of levee from Sta.0+35 to Sta.20+35. A 3 man crew with a bobcat was walking the entire levee area and picking up unsuitable material. Corps inspector assured us that this type of action would be continued throughout entire job."

After reading as many of these reports as I have, I have learned to be very skeptical when I see the words "Corps inspector" and "assured" in proximity. And as expected, an inspection on February 23, 2011 of the mostly finished levees turned up debris in the final product:

"23-Feb-2011 - The first day of inspection between approximate stations 164+92 to 74+65 revealed debris, ruts and low areas. It was apparent that some of the ruts were caused by others.
Contractor called out a crew to begin picking up debris. Crew picked up debris that SLFPA‐W crew flagging; no other debris was picked up by crew. SLFPA‐W (Roark, Muscarello), USACE (Major Giles, Channing) picked up debris in areas of flags and placed at flags as depicted in pictures."

There was still debris during another inspection on March 29, 2011 and April 1, 2011, but it was minimal:

"Overall debris found was within limits of specifications. Only one piece of wood was found of a substantial size and a minimal amount (1/2 dozen) of small concrete pieces were found, contractor removed all debris immediately. During inspection SLFPA-W noted contractor was picking up debris that was less than size limits set in specifications."

It's probably too little, too late.


Debris problems on this 3.75 mile long levee project (contractor: Phylway) near Lake Cataouatche date back months, and possibly longer. In October of last year, SLFPA-W inspectors noticed rocks and other debris in completed sections of the levee. During an October 19, 2010 inspection, they noted:

"Issue: Unsuitable material found on levee from Sta.320+00 to Sta.330+0. Rocks are localized on floodside of levee."

SLFPA-W inspectors continued to find debris during the October 25, 2010, November 4, 2010, and November 8, 2010.

On December 21 and 22, 2010, things seem to get more serious. The inspection report for this two day visit indicates it was the first time SLFPA-W inspector David Roark had come to the site. His inspection report notes the debris problem in much more complete terms:

"21-Dec-2010 - SLFPA-W met Coe representative (Paul Williams) at the Coe site trailer. Reviewed project progress and both parties proceeded to site.
Overall review of inspection, some debris was found and Coe representative called contractor to site area of debris. Continuing with project inspection the contractor joined us; debris was immediately picked up as found during the inspection tour. Both the Coe representative and the contractor were concerned with the amount of debris found in area of finished grade berm (protected side) which basically filled the back of the Coe representative's truck (as depicted in photo P1000040)."

The Corps inspector and the contractor were concerned. Right. More like finally confronted. Here's the photo of the back of the Corps inspector's truck, filled with junk pulled out of the levee:

I'm not exactly sure of the workflow on a levee project. However, I believe dirt is initially delivered to piles in a "stock yard" on the site. Then I think it is taken to a flat area where it is laid out and "processed" before it is placed on the levee. Theoretically, the "processing" step should get the debris out, but it really shouldn't be in there in the first place.

This report includes pictures of the stock yard in a section noted as an "Issue." Specifically, the report says, "Unsuitable material in dirt needs to be picked out after dirt is spread," implying the debris in these photos is destined for the levee. Take a look at all the junk in this material:

If this is what is coming out of the borrow pits, and if the contractor and Corps inspectors are as slack about removing debris as the SLFPA-W inspectors lead us to believe they are, it's no wonder junk is making it into the levees. These stockpiles almost look like more rock than dirt.

Back to the inspections. Debris was again found during the January 4, 2011 inspection. That seemed to have been the final straw, because the next inspection - on January 20, 2011, the SLFPA-W sent three SLFPA-W inspectors and the Corps sent a Major. The very throrough inspection generated another truck bed full of stuff:

Afterwards, everyone seemed to think things would be okay:

"Debriefing: It was agreed that the debris concerns still exist, but the actions that the USACE and contractor have taken appear to be resolving the debris concerns.
Actions taken:
- Truck spotter is removing debris as trucks dump.
- Contractor's crew inspects for debris again, photos and removes any debris found.
- USACE inspects area again for any debris, debris found contractor removes."

But - as with so many other projects - the debris kept showing up. From the February 21, 2011 inspection:

"Reviewed areas of currently placed fill between approximate stations 465+00 and 468+00 along with section between stations 340+00 and 325+00. Some debris was found between stations 340+00 and 325+00 on the protected side as noted later in report by photos. Contractor stated lift was just placed and assured that the next step is to remove debris."

More assurances that debris would be removed. After a while, they just don't wash.

So what was reported during the April 6, 2011 inspection should not come as a surprise:

"Reviewed flood side of project between approximate stations 317+00 and 377+00. Debris was numerous through out this area in the berm. Most debris found was rocks and concrete; all of a considerable size."

And the SLFPA-W inspector's view should also be no surprise:

"Debriefing was held with USACE and the contractor. The amount of debris found along the flood side berm and haul road is still a considerable amount. During the past several site visits debris along the flood side berm has been located and removed. SLFPA-W believes the amount of debris found should have decreased in this amount of time and has requested that the contractor focus on debris removal before the next SLFPA-W site visit. Contractor agreed and is also attempting to schedule to begin seeding operation at the end of two weeks or the beginning of the third week from today. Seeding operation will cover the protected side berm along with both sides and top of the levee. Contractor to harrow areas before seeding and follow with a crew to remove any debris. USACE will notify SLFPA-W once harrowing begins."

How many times do the contractor and the Corps inspectors have to agree that debris is a problem, and then have more debris pointed out during the very next inspection, before something serious is done?

Unfortunately, this is the last report we have from this project. However, I think you get the point.

River Birch pits (+ Phylway?) = debris

Something starts to emerge from these reports: the River Birch pits appear very, very bad. We've seen the possibility of it in the WBV-14b.2 reports above, we've seen it mentioned definitely in the WBV-14a.2 reports - also above - and we've seen it mentioned in the WBV-14c.2 reports earlier. Now it shows up in the most recent inspection report from project WBV-14e.2.

WBV-14e.2 is a levee project across from the West Closure Complex, on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway:

In the May 27th report on the May 26, 2011 inspection of WBV-14e.2, we read this:

"- Reach 3C (approximate stations 768+50 to 799+35), existing levee has been capped to elevation 11.0'. Contractor was placing embankment on protected side berm at approximate Sta.787+50. Contractor began hauling in material from the River Birch pit on Thursday 5/25/11.

- SLFPAW reps expressed their concerns about the contractor changing from the Willowbend to RiverBirch pits."

The contractor is Phylway, the same one as on WBV-14c.2.

What exactly is happening here? We know River Birch has some sort of hold on certain members of the Jefferson Parish political establishment, but do they also have a similar influence on the Corps and their contractors? And what would make the contractor switch from a pit which is known to be clean to one that is known to be debris-laden? After all, the SLFPA-W reports have repeatedly commended the Willow Bend pit as quite acceptable. In their May 23, 2011 report on a May 18, 2011 inspection to WBV-14e.2, they specifically noted:

"No issues at this time. Material is hauled from the Willow bend pit and is very clean."

A possible connection is the contractor Phylway. Their name, along with River Birch's, keeps popping up on projects where debris is a problem. They are the contractor on what appears to be the worst project, WBV-14c.2, as well as three other projects with reported debris problems: WBV-12 (covered in Part 3), WBV-14e.2 (covered above), and WBV-15a.2 (also covered above).

I should also note that WBV-14e.2 is yet another project that was not actually at the 100 year level of protection at the end of May, despite the Corps saying it was. From the May 27th report on the May 26, 2011 inspection of WBV-14e.2:

"This project involves raising the elevation of approximately 3.5 miles of existing earthen levee to the 100-year level of protection varying between elevations +13.0 to +14.0."

"- Reach 1 (approximate Sta.649+54 to 661+50) has been constructed to elevation 12.5'. Final construction grade will be elevation 14.0'. No work was being done in this area during site visit.
- Reach 2 (approximate Sta.662+00 to 741+50), existing levee has been capped to elevation 11.0'.
- Reach 3A and 3B (approximate Sta.742+00 to 768+00) has been constructed to elevation 13.5' and has been seeded.
- Reach 3C (approximate stations 768+50 to 799+35), existing levee has been capped to elevation 11.0'. Contractor was placing embankment on protected side berm at approximate Sta.787+50. Contractor began hauling in material from the River Birch pit on Thursday 5/25/11."

How many projects are there like this?


We looked at the March 23, 2011 inspection of WBV-18.2 (contractor: Circle Construction) in part 3 of this series. At that time, there were debris problems. Since there, there's been two more inspections. An April 4, 2011 inspection revealed:

"Contractor placing only material to be processed and sealing in preparation of forecasted storm. Reviewed project from approximate station 245+00 to 160+00 along the protected side berm. Debris noted today was localized in the original berm area on the protected side between approximate stations 180+00 and 178+00. Overall material being placed for processing appears to be free of debris."

We get a hint of why the material looks cleaner in the report for the May 10, 2011 inspection:

"Contractor processing material; overall material placed for processing appears to be free of debris. Embankment material currently being placed on protected side berm at approximate station 211+00.

Very little debris was noted in review of levee and berm; debris found was removed and tossed to toe of levee (protected side) to be picked up by contractor later today.

No issues, excavation was halted at pit were debris was coming from. Current material appears to be free of debris."

So this contractor (Circle Construction) stopped using a pit that was putting out debris. It's unfortunate the pit is not identified, but it does lend more credence to a theory that certain pits are contaminating levees all over the west bank with debris. However, I should note that this project was using borrow from pits located on the site, so it's not clear if the inspector was referring to those pits, or pits elsewhere. Nevertheless, the debris problem was there.


We also looked at this project (contractor: Healtheon) in an earlier post. It too was having debris problems. And like so many others, they have continued.

Except there is one difference. The SLFPA-W have explicitly linked the debris issue to the Corps' drive to build stuff before June 1, 2011. This is shocking stuff to read.

From the May 16th report on the May 10, 2011 inspection report of WBV-17b.2:

"Overall review of site visit:
Levee is completed to construction elevation with the exception of two areas. The first at the east entrance levee crossing for WBV-72 and the second at the discharge pipe crossing for WBV-76.
The last lift placed atop the levee is compacted but not graded level; contains high and low areas (not sure which area is to grade). The sides of the levee where the last lift was placed appear not to have been graded or compacted. A considerable amount of debris was found through out the top and sides of the levee along with a small amount in the flood side berm."

So not only is there debris through this supposedly finished levee, it's also not really finished.

But here's the gauntlet being laid down:

The amount of debris found in the material placed in the levee is considered unacceptable. SLFPA-W noted no crew on site picking up debris today.
As reported in previous report; SLFPA-W has concerns that some debris may not have been removed due to the rate of 38 trucks per hour dumping material and no personnel was noted picking up debris.
Previous SLFPA-W concerns about the debris appear to have been disregarded to meet the June mandate."

Wow. That's really, truly laying it on the line. They (David Roark representing the SLFPA-W and David St. Marie representing the state of Louisiana) follow up with 8 pages of debris photos, and even include direct quotes about debris from the specifications. It is as close to an out-and-out argument as you will see in such a document.

The next inspection (May 23, 2011) shows the Corps inspector - Larry Pryor - pushing to finish the levee in advance of the June 1 deadline, and the SLFPA-W (represented by David Roark) insisting (rightly) that it's not acceptable.

"Overall review of site visit:
Levee is completed to construction elevation with the exception of two areas. The first at the east entrance levee construction crossing for WBV-72 and the second at the discharge pipe construction crossing for WBV-76.

USACE inspector expressed that the contractor believes the levee has been constructed to plans and specs and is ready for seeding; after reviewing the levee it appears to still have high and low areas along the top and sides of the levee. Also, debris was found along the top and sides of the levee.

Before seeding, the levee needs to be graded, compacted and the debris removed (wood and concrete)."

Who exactly is Mr. Pryor working for here? Along with debris photos, the SLFPA-W inspection report includes page after page of photos of depressions and debris in the levee, but the Corps wants to say it's done? Here's the best picture (among many) of the rather obvious high and low areas along the top of the WBV-17b.2 levee:

There is something deeply wrong going on.


A few trends emerge from reading enough of these reports:

1) The debris problem is widespread

Here's a map showing the projects where SLFPA-W inspections have documented debris problems:

All those red lines represent eight levee projects covering 21.9 miles, 18.9 miles of it on the front lines of a hurricane. It looks like the majority of the 100-year hurricane protection levee system along the west bank, excepting the Mississippi River levees. This is not an isolated problem. This is a systemic threat to the integrity of the storm protection around New Orleans.

2) The Corps does not like the SLFPA-W

SLFPA-W inspectors do not appear to be welcome on the project sites by Corps inspectors. Some Corps inspectors explicitly ignore them, while others insist projects are acceptable when they clearly, obviously are not. As a result, levees appear to be getting built improperly, despite SLFPA-W objections.

3) Some borrow pits are debris-laden

Numerous SLFPA-W inspection reports point to borrow pits owned by River Birch as the culprit in the excessive amounts of debris being placed into miles of new levees around the west bank. Certain projects' contractors and Corps inspectors (and higher Corps officials) are well aware of this, yet continued - and continue - to use these pits, sometimes even switching to them from cleaner pits (this happened the last week of May on one project). This is a serious, systematic problem that screams out for investigation, especially in light of the ongoing federal investigation into River Birch and their dealings with Jefferson Parish politicos.

4) The Corps' race to June 1st has materially affected the levee work, resulting in unacceptable work.

The SLFPA-W says it explicitly and implicitly throughout their reports: the Corps' hurrying has damaged their levee work. Guess who eventually pays? The people living behind those levees.

5) The Corps lied about projects being 100-year ready on June 1, 2011

SLFPA-W photos and inspection reports from the last week of May document numerous projects still well below 100-year elevations, despite Corps public pronoucements claiming the opposite. This appears to be lying by the Corps.

In the next part, the debris problem breaks through to the print media.


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