Saturday, October 01, 2005


NBC News misrepresents "weak levee warning" documents

"New Orleans levee reported weak in 1990s

Records: Construction firm alerted engineers, but no action was taken"

That's the headline from this MSNBC report, alleging that "legal documents" show the Army Corps of Engineers was warned in the 1990's that the 17th Street Canal Floodwall was weak. However, a review of the actual document in question makes it clear that NBC is misrepresenting the contents of the document and making conclusions not supported by that document.

NBC News has obtained what may be a key clue, hidden in long forgotten legal documents. They reveal that when the floodwall on the 17th Street Canal was built a decade ago, there were major construction problems — problems brought to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A 1998 ruling, by an administrative judge for the Corps' Board of Contract Appeals, shows that the contractor, Pittman Construction, told the Corps that the soil and the foundation for the walls were “not of sufficient strength, rigidity and stability” to build on.

The construction company said as a result of these problems the walls were shifting and “out of tolerance,” meaning they did not meet some design specifications. Nevertheless, the Army Corps of Engineers accepted the work.

Before we all leap to the conclusion the MSM wants us to reach, go have a look at the actual "court papers" in question. The PDF is available
HERE. The contractor was trying to collect an extra $800,000 on the contract. "Out of tolerance" in this context means "not plumb" (or "vertically straight") and has absolutely nothing to do with the strength or adequacy of the levee... in fact the contractor admitted and agreed that the levee was adequate for its intended purpose.

This was actually a dispute where a contractor was claiming the site conditions caused delays and extra expense (and the failure to produce walls plumb to within 1/4") and the gov't claimed the contractor caused its own problems the way it placed its forms for concrete. And produced another contractor who had built a similar levee who encountered similar problems and solved them without incurring an additional $800,000 in time and expense and delays. It may well be that somebody had reason to expect that the levee wasn't adequate...but these documents have no bearing whatsoever on that question.

There's nothing in these documents that indicates anybody ever claimed the contractor (or the completed levee) didn't meet specs, resulting in a "weak" levee (or wall). The only spec the contractor didn't meet was being out of plumb more than the "tolerance" (ie margin of error) in the contract.

The argument the contractor made was to claim soil conditions and the existing sheet piling was too "weak" to support the framing for its poured concrete, causing the walls to be out of plumb. The government position was that they shouldn't have been supporting their framing with the sheet pilings and could have waited a few days for the soil to firm up.

Contrary to what NBC is suggesting, the contractor did not “warn” anybody “that the soil and the foundation for the walls were “not of sufficient strength, rigidity and stability” to build on.” This strongly suggests that the contractor warned that the levee as completed would be "weak". In fact, the contractor never raised the issue at all until after the wall was mostly constructed and the government complained about the plumb issue and construction delays and withheld some payments. And at that point, the contractor was not arguing that there was a problem with the levee as completed, it was only arguing that unexpected conditions made the job more expensive and caused delays in construction.

Keep in mind, the contractor went ahead and actually built the levy and accepted payment.

There's NOTHING in these documents that says ANY party ever said the levee as completed was "weak" or in any way inadequate or defective. It may have been defective in some way, I obviously don't know that. But these documents certainly don't lead to that conclusion.

By the way, NBC appears to also be wrong in asserting that concrete was just "poured over top" of an existing earthen levee. From the document they reference, it appears that a "cofferdam", a sort of temporary levee, was constructed to keep water back from the construction area, the earth levee was excavated, and the concrete seawall or levee was constructed around the sheet metal pilings used to anchor and support the original earthen levee. Additional sheet pilings apparently were added, and the government argued that the contractor would have had less problem framing for concrete if they'd waited a few days for the soil to "recover" after being drained and having pilings driven into it.

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