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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Debris Part 12

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8
Part 9
Part 10
Part 11
Part 13
Part 14

As with the last two parts in this series, we'll continue to focus on the debris problems on the east bank, utilizing the SLFPA-East inspection reports from January, 2010 through March, 2012 as a jumping off point.

One of the top debris stories that emerges from the east bank inspection reports is at the outfall canals - 17th Street, Orleans Avenue, and London Avenue. It always seems to come back to them. There are 17 separate times between March and November, 2011 when debris popped up in an SLFPA-East inspection of one of the four outfall canal remediation projects (two projects along the Orleans Avenue canal, and one each at London and 17th). Those projects were under construction through 2011. This post will focus strictly on the 17th Street canal remediation project.

"Rocks, concrete, bricks, shells, asphalt"

The first SLFPA-East debris reports at the 17th Street canal project were in March, 2011. They described the discovery of "unsuitable material" already existing within the 17th Street levee:
"Unsuitable material encountered on the west bank has been hauled and stockpiled within the laydown area. The USACE has verbally indicated that this material will likely be wasted throughout the laydown area. Estimated quantity is approx. 7500 cubic yards." - March 22, 2011
"Continuing to haul unsuitable material from the west bank of the canal to the laydown area on Bellaire St." -March 29, 2011

Unfortunately, this is all the SLFPA-East inspectors had to say about the matter.

Fortunately, I've got even more documentation on this. A while back I FOIA'd all the Quality Control (QC) and Quality Assurance (QA) reports for all four of the outfall canal remediation projects. Here's the 17th Street canal reports:

17th Street QC Reports 12/28/10-3/31/11
17th Street QC Reports 4/1/11-6/30/11
17th Street QC Reports 7/1/11-8/24/11
17th Street QA Reports 12/28/10-3/31/11
17th Street QA Reports 4/1/11-6/30/11
17th Street QA Reports 7/1/11-8/17/11

QC reports are written by the prime contractor, while QA reports are written by the Corps' onsite inspectors. And they give far more detail, as well as telling some other creepy stories.

First a bit of explanation - the 17th Street project consisted mostly of deep soil mixing of grout with existing soil to improve the strength of the soil along both banks of the canal. Columns of dirt below the base of the levees were mixed with injected grout down to -20 to -40 feet. The contractor had to excavate a few feet off the top of the levee to give a flat platform on which to mount the drilling rigs and other work equipment. Here's the generic cross-sectional detail from the project issued-for-construction drawings showing this:
The excavated material is shown with the single hatching on top of the levee. It was expected to be reused as backfill for the same area at the completion of the project. With this excavation, for the first time we got to find out exactly what was inside the 17th Street canal levees. And, just as with levees all across the area, it appears there was a lot of junk.

Work got underway on this project in a substantial way in February, 2011 on the east - or Orleans Parish - bank of the canal. Let's start on the east bank on February 26, 2011 with the contractor's (Bailey-CKY Joint Venture) QC report:
"Visually inspected the clearing and grubbing of the East Bank levee. All grass material cleared per specifications. In additional [sic] to the anticipated grass, several areas had old concrete foundations for fences, pockets of red limestone, trash debris, and rocks. We did not encounter any areas with significant forein [sic] material which would make the levee material unsuitable for reuse."

So all that stuff is suitable for reuse. Good to know. The story would change quickly though.

Less than two weeks later, work began on the west - or Jefferson Parish - bank. On the very first day the contractor dug into the levee on the westbank of the canal (March 7, 2011, which was also Lundi Gras), this is what they found near the intersection of Orpheum and Rosebud:
"Visually inspected the construction of the West Bank production pad. Material removed from the existing levee between stations 588+00 and 590+00 contained significant debris (rocks, concrete, bricks, shells, asphalt). Informed Bill and Derrick [Corps employees Bill Richardson and Derrick Parker] and they came over to look. We asked they to determine if this would be considered "unsuitable" to reuse in the construct of the levee"

The Corps' QA report for the same day doesn't mention this at all. Four days later, March 11th, a decision was made on this junk pulled out of the west bank levee:
"Got a verbal answer from [Corps employee] Bill Richardson concerning the "unsuitable material" encountered during the excavation of the West Bank platform. We are to excavate to the required depth to build the production platform only. All excavated material will be hauled offsite and replaced with suitable clay material from the Bonnet Carre borrow pit."

At least they didn't try to reuse it. But they also didn't bother to tell the public there was rocks, concrete, bricks, shells, and asphalt inside the 17th Street canal levee that had been there since it was built decades ago. And since - in what can only be called a paucity of caution - the Corps told the contractor not to go any deeper than what drawings said for the height of the production platform, +2.5 feet in this case, we can't know for sure if there's debris in the levee below that elevation. However, that Corps wink-and-a-nod instruction ("excavate to the required depth to build the production platform only") would indicate they believed the rest of the levee was similarly riddled, and didn't want to bother dealing with it. That means there's likely still junk in the 17th Street canal levee today. Returning to the detail from the drawings, we can see this graphically:
Nice. And in case you're wondering, this went on for weeks and weeks. To give an idea of scale, the June 7, 2011 contractor's QC report read:
"69 [dump truck] loads (approxmately 1242 cubic yards) of unsuitable material removed from site"

That's in a single day. The following day another 38 loads was hauled away. And so on, and so on. Plus some of it got spread on the ground at the Corps' Bellaire Street laydown yard as well. That's a lot of levee that had been "unsuitable" since the 1990's. And there's a lot more just sitting there made up of the same material.

Let me put his another way. Say you and your friends were sharing pieces of a yummy 7 layer chocolate cake at a restaurant. And let's say you found rat droppings inside the top 3 layers of your piece. Would you A) Continue eating it, and not tell the rest of your dining companions, or B) Spit it out, and grab the rest of the cake and toss it out, and report the restaurant to the board of health?

The Corps chose "A."

Tree stumps and roots

It's not only "rocks, concrete, bricks, shells, and asphalt" inside the 17th Street canal levee though. There's also tree stumps and roots. From the March 8, 2011 contractor QC report on east bank work:
"Visually observed the installation of ground improvement panels. Hit an obstruction at location EG573+80D-F which stopped the drill rig. Excavated down to the obstruction and found a tree stump which appeared to run parallel with the floodwall. Informed the USACE and requested direction on how to proceed."

The incident was noted in the Corps' QA log from the same day:
"Daniel Swenson
Drill incountered [sic] obstacle at station 573+80. Derrick was notified. He photographed the obstacle (tree). Information was passed up to [Corps administrative contracting officer] Greg Shultz. [sic]"

Tree roots were hit again two days later on March 10th, about 70 feet away from the stump hit on the 8th. On March 11th an obstruction was hit 90 feet away from the stump found on the 8th. After hitting three obstructions in a week on the east bank, there was some resolution on the 11th. The Corps said that if a soil mixing column couldn't be placed 1.5 feet to either side of the obstruction, the contractor was to move on to the next location and the Corps would have them return to the obstructed location later for remedial measures at the government's expense. This would seem equitable. But it's still troubling there was so much wood in the levee.

"The concrete object"
Then on March 25th came discovery of a very large concrete "object" just below the west bank levee near the intersection of Orpheum and West Esplanade. From the contractor's QC report on that day:
"During the construction of the production platform on the west side of the canal, a large concrete structure was exposed at approximately station 577+80. CKY excavated around object to try and see the size of the object and how to remove object. The size of the concrete object was found to be approximately 20'x13' with rebar protruding out of the concrete. Object was unable to be removed. USACE was contacted about the object and pictures were taken. GPS was used to mark the location of the object. The USACE will be asked in an RFI [request for information] if only elements ABC can be installed at this location due to the large concrete object."

The Corps QA report has a little more detail:
"The concrete footing is quote thick, it could exceed 2 feet. The footing consists of spread footings that cover the area between stations 577+81.5 and 577+90.5. The depth, below levee grade, is near the elevation of the adjacent road."

That's right:a room sized chunk of concrete buried under the levee that didn't get discovered until the levee was dug out. The Corps took pictures two months later when they dealt with the thing:

This mass of concrete was in an area that had been extensively explored by Corps test borings. No fewer than 11 test bores and cone penetrometer tests had been drilled into the levee within 200 feet of this location, 10 of them since the 2005 levee failures, as seen on this detail:

One must ask how such a giant chunk of concrete could be unearthed as a surprise. It also raises the obvious question about the quality of the information gleaned from the test bores and other exploratory drilling the Corps does before a project.

In this particular case, the obstruction was so huge they actually left it in place. After covering it back up in March, they went back in late May. They uncovered the obstruction and then backfilled and compacted the affected area between May 24, 2011 and June 1, 2011, with the columns that were missed getting installed by June 4, 2011.

So in just the first month, in addition to the giant concrete object, they also uncovered tree stumps, tree roots and enough "rocks, concrete, bricks, shells, and asphalt" that the existing soil making up the levee was determined to not be suitable to make up a levee. And all that was in the first month of construction!

These types of decades-old ticking time bombs surround the greater New Orleans area, and the only way they get discovered is when the levees get a backhoe put into them, which is almost never. In this case, the Corps found so much junk in the top of levee they trashed the dirt. But they deliberately left the bottom of levee, which almost undoubtedly contains the same proportion of junk, untouched. There was no follow up, no further investigation, and no announcement to the public of what was found. Until now.

Sand in the levees

But of course, there's more. From the April 15, 2011 contractor QC report, describing excavation of the east bank levee to construct a production platform between 12th and 14th Streets:
"Located sand in the levee at approximately station 620+00. Dan (QA) with USACE was notified of findings."

And from the April 16, 2011 contractor QC report:
"Showed Dan Swenson (QA) with USACE the sand located at approximately station 619+50."

The Corps' QA reports for both days don't mention it, but they often leave stuff out. And again I must mention these excavations were only taking the top half of the levee off, leaving the bottom half with likely identical contents.

About a month later it happened again. On May 12, 2011 the contractor's QC report read:
"Unsuitable material was found in the levee on East side North end of project. An RFI was sent to government on what they would like to do on this issue."

This time, the Corps QA report provides more detail:
"CKY CQC [contractor quality control] Manager asked me to witness material encountered at the north end of the east levee. The upper level is a sandy material similar to the material removed from the west side levee. [Corps administrtive contracting officer] Greg [Schulz] mentioned that this quantity can be aded to the unsuitable material removed and replaced on the west side levee."

Sand found in the levee on both banks of the 17th Street canal! And they just blithely said, "haul it off and we'll replace it." No "further investigation is necessary," or "excavation of remaining untouched portion of levee may be recommended." It's kind of scary.

The new dirt

Finally, there was the new soil that was placed on the levee to replace the stuff taken off. There's indications it had debris in it as well, though it's unclear whether it was an unacceptable amount. Contractor's QC and Corps QA reports through May, June, and July, 2011 - when embankment was being replaced along the levees - talk of "removing unsuitable material as it is encountered" but give no further detail. The only real information comes from a contractor's QC report on July 21, 2011, when the grassing contractor (JC Cheek) reported for their first day of work:
"West side of the canal embankment - Finalizing grading.
JC Cheek on site to begin turf establishment. Bailey CKY JV had crew of four employees to pick up debris 3" or larger as JC Cheek prepared the levee for turf establishment."

Given that Corps specifications have much looser limits on the size of debris allowed - if the debris is woody, pieces up to 12" are allowed - this activity by the contractor would appear to be going far above and beyond the specifications. So in theory the new dirt was pretty clean. But then there's a passage like this out of the October 19, 2011 SLFPA-East inspection report:
"On the West side most of the punchlist items were addressed. There is still poor turf establishment on this side as well. There were areas that were almost completely bare that will need to be addressed. There were two separate areas where there was a lot of rocks that surfaced on the slope that will need to be removed."

And then there's also the realization that the first time dedicated crews to remove debris were mentioned in the QC or QA reports was only when the contractor had finished building the levee. That is, levees like these are built in 6 inch thick "lifts;" and to make sure the dirt is clean through the entire levee, debris-checking crews should be sweeping through with after every lift, not just at the very end (we've seen this diligence occur in the more debris-laden west bank levee projects). Otherwise, you miss stuff, just like the October 19, 2011 SLFPA-East reports describes.

Wrapping up

So, how clean are the 17th Street canal levees? I would say, "Not very." For one thing, this remediation project didn't touch any of the levees south of Veterans, which means backhoes never dug into those levees to discover concrete, bricks, rocks, gravel, trash, shells, asphalt, tree stumps, tree roots, sand, or any other flotsam and jetsam similar to what was found in the northern stretches of the canal. So we have no idea what's really in those levees.

And on the stretches that were excavated, much of the dirt - especially on the west bank of the canal - was found to be unsuitable for use in levee construction and was replaced. But that dirt only came from the top halves of those levees; the bottom halves - per explicit directions from the Corps - were deliberately ignored. Those levee bottom halves likely also contain the same junk found in the top halves.

How safe do you feel?

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