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Engineers use the words ‘catastrophic failure’, prompting city leaders to question safety of viaduct

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A view of the Alaskan Way Viaduct from ground level. (Photo: KCPQ-TV)

SEATTLE — Seattle’s waterfront tunnel project was back in the spotlight after an alarming new letter surfaced warning of ‘catastrophic failure.’

Contractors have been digging a deep pit to reach the damaged tunnel-boring machine Bertha so they can fix it.

The ‘catastrophic failure’ is referring to that process. In a December 11 letter, engineers warned that digging too deep without further analysis of the soil could be a problem.

On Monday, the Washington State Department of Transportation said the letter was taken out of context.

“It is a misrepresentation of the Brierley report,” said WSDOT’s Todd Trepanier.

The letter was written by engineers with Brierley Associates, a firm hired by Seattle Tunnel Partners. STP is WSDOT’s contractor for the Bertha tunnel-digging project.

“If we continue the current repair 'as we go' method of excavation we significantly increase the risk of a catastrophic failure. Therefore excavation shall not proceed.”

Yet, the Seattle Department of Transportation says no one ever sounded the alarm. Instead their people discovered the engineers' report through a shared database.

“This is the type of information that should have been elevated,” said SDOT's Scott Kubly.

SDOT told City Council members that the wording of the language was changed days later.

“In summary, we believe that the untreated soil zones…..will have a significant impact on the structural, geotechnical and hydraulic adequacy of the shaft structure. Our primary concern was the deletion of some language that we thought needed some explanation,” Kubly said.

The council pushed for an explanation and demanded they get a copy of the full reports.

“I have no recourse other than to be worried when I see documents like this and the fact that it’s taken a month to come to our attention,” City Councilman Mike O’Brien said.

But state transportation officials say city workers overreacted.

They say the words ‘catastrophic failure’ came out of a draft letter and it was taken out of context.

“It`s a mischaracterization of the word that is causing unneeded fear,” Trepanier said.

Trepanier continued to say, “The Alaskan Way Viaduct and the access pit that is being built to access Bertha to do repairs is safe it has always been safe.”

SDOT says they acted appropriately by bringing the issue up for clarification. And some city leaders said they were still not convinced the viaduct is safe.

“When an engineer says catastrophic failure, it must mean some importance to the public,” City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant said.

The excavation or digging of the access pit has stopped until further analysis.

WSDOT says they are thinking about limiting SDOT’s access to the shared database but some council members said that wasn’t a good idea.

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  • perplexed

    Concerns should have been raised millions of dollars ago, like before the project was undertaken. Was our soil and what the city is built upon ever even considered? The viaduct may need replacing, but, tunneling is insanity.

  • Expressions

    No form of government entities should restrict the access of information to the public – including restrictions against filtering, editing, etc. Government agencies seem to conveniently forget who is footing the bill, who they are employed by, who they represent. Not only should the Council have access to raw reports – so should the taxpayers, also known as, “we the people”.

    • Samuel

      When working on a design build project like this many different people take part in analyses of data and drafting of reports. Those people range from the Senior Consultants who review and make decisions based on their experience and the young engineers who tend to run the actual calculations and draft their calculation packages. In these shared databases, there is a region in which people work and everything in that folder is a work in progress and has not yet been reviewed. The person who originally wrote “catastrophic failure” may likely have been a young engineer, maybe not even licensed by the state yet as a professional engineer. This is why we have review processes and oversight before reports of finalized. Getting all excited over words expressed in a draft report is not worth it because they are the words of a more inexperienced engineer. What appears to have happened here is it was initially phrased, but upon the review of the more experienced, licensed engineer it was determined that based on the data and their expertise that such drastic phrasing does not correctly convey realistic risks and hazards. This is not a matter of them wordsmithing to deceive this is a matter of documents going public prior to their official review process.

      • A. G. Singham

        The draft report should not have been sent out prior to the more responsible senior engineer review for any projects in general and particularly never for the sensitive and high profile project like this one. If still there are concerns, the authorities and regulators may consider an efficient brief external independent review from reputable and credible local or national experts and resources, including, for example, from Deep Excavation, LLC, that has already performed some rough preliminary evaluations..

  • tired worker

    So they will change the wording until it suits them, then they will go ahead with the project until either buildings collapse or the whole thing is flooded and damages the viaduct and it falls down with cars on it. Then they will say “oops”. Then they will find Bertha buried under everything and try to fix her so she can dig into one of those train cars. But remember it’s only our money not theirs.

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