Fix the pumps

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.'"


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