Investigative Reporter Talks About Possible Structural Flaws on the Bay Bridge

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The Bay Bridge (Photo: (cc) Flickr user Jdnx)

(San Francisco, CA -- KALW) Two employees at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) were fired last week for allegedly falsifying test results on various projects around the state, and neglecting proper testing procedures of the new span on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The news came from an investigative report published November 13 in the Sacramento Bee. The two Caltrans employees – a technician and his supervisor – were fired that same day, even though Caltrans knew about the falsified test results back in 2008.

Caltrans acting director Malcolm Dougherty said in a press conference that the problems stemmed from an isolated incident with one employee, and that all the structures in question are safe. According to Tony Anziano, the toll bridge program manager for Caltrans, the agency has no concerns about the safety or quality of construction of the new span.

“There has been absolutely no evidence of any kind of falsification of any testing data on the Bay Bridge project,” said Anziano. “We remain extremely confident about the safety of the tower foundation piles for the Bay Bridge.”

The California Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee, which includes Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission, and the Bay Area Toll Authority, has called for a review by the state Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel of all the aspects of the bridge that were tested by the fired technician. Actual re-testing of the bridge foundation, however, is “virtually impossible” according to the Bee’s investigation.

Charles Piller is the Sacramento Bee reporter who led the investigation. KALW’s Julie Caine called him up to talk about his findings.


CHARLES PILLER: What happened was that for a period of years there were irregularities in the branch of Caltrans that passed the foundations for freeway structures. These are the deep concrete and steel foundations for bridges, overpasses, and elevated roadways, among other freeway structures.

The individual who we wrote about in the story, Duane Wiles, who was a technician who was involved in testing some of these structures, dozens of them across the state, and Caltrans knew, in 2008, that he had falsified some of these structures. The story unfolds from the detection of falsification of data on a single structure —a freeway overpass in Riverside, (Southern California). What came out of that was a very cursory, short and incomplete examination of Wiles' record of testing.

Soon after, it was found that he had falsified at least two other structures. The implications of falsified tests of course, are at the very least, uncertainty about the public safety of the structures in question. Because no through investigation has been done on the extent of fabricated data by Duane Wiles, its difficult to say how many structures might be involved, that’s a first step.  Caltrans has repeatedly said that they have made a thorough investigation of Duane Wiles work and have certified the structures he worked on as safe for the traveling public.  This is contradicted directly by their own documents that I am in possession of. Contradicted in a multitude of ways.

JULIE CAINE: Can you talk about implications as they relate to the new structure of the Bay Bridge?

PILLER: Yes. We do not have evidence that data was falsified on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. We do have evidence that Duayne Wiles used improper testing techniques, associated with all of his work on that bridge and all of his work actually, for nearly every structure he tested for a period of two years.

The implications of that improper testing technique are somewhat uncertain. It depends on other factors. Caltrans has dismissed concerns about improper technique as irrelevant. Unfortunately their own test method, the test method that they require their engineers and their technicians to use, requires certain elements of technique that Duane Wiles routinely violated.  So, there’s a degree of uncertainty about the testing process itself.

Now, does this mean that the bridge is vulnerable to collapsing or to serious damage during an earthquake? No one is suggesting that. All the engineers I’ve talked with are suggesting is that this was not well-thought through. The testing was not well-thought through, the design of these piles contradicts the standard testing methods that would normally be used for these structures and consequently, it has raised questions about whether a team of qualified experts should get a close look at these structures and try to determine whether there’s anything in there that can help understand whether there’s vulnerabilities that were previously undetected.

CAINE: And is that possible to do?

PILLER: What can be done is a reassessment based on new assumptions. Assumptions that certain mistakes were made. Certain flaws are present that are perhaps undetectable but still present. And a calculation can be made about the stability of the structure even under a worse case scenario of substantially flawed foundations that have not been detected as of yet. And it’s a calculation that I think Caltrans has already said it would get a look at but they’re being a little bit ambiguous about their comments about this. But they claim that they’re going to put out the test findings to peer review to try to examine whether there’s any cause for concern.

CAINE: Would you drive across the new Bay Bridge?

PILLER: I live in Oakland and this story is very important to me and I have to say that it was very disheartening for me to even have to write it because of the public safety and economic implications for California. I think for me, I would certainly like to see a through evaluation of the bridge by experts and some bridge consultants and experts that I’ve spoken with have suggested that.

Fortunately for all of us, no one is going to be driving across that bridge until 2013 when it's completed. That’s plenty of time to do the kind of re-evaluation that’s been proposed and, I’m very hopeful that if that re-evaluation shows favorable information the public will be able to be reassured and myself among them.