Muni Sues Port Designers, They Fault Construction

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After years of problems, which halted the Port of Anchorage project, the Municipality of Anchorage is suing the designers.

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Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan’s administration filed the lawsuits in response to recent studies released by the engineering firm CH2M Hill. That company faulted the port’s design. Robert Owens is an Assistant Municipal Attorney with the city. He says the municipality has been investigating problems with the port project since they arose 2009.

“When the suitability study was completed we found out the full extent of the problems,” Owens said.

There were multiple problems with the project, which used a patented “open cell sheet pile” design. These sheets of metal, driven into the ground, shored up by metal supports, with earth filled in behind, were supposed to create a base for the port, but some crumpled or separated during construction. Owens says besides the problems that came up during construction, the CH2M Hill report indicates the port structure might not hold up during an earthquake.

“It was unstable. It could fall or tip or collapse in some fashion, because part of it, the native soils that it’s sitting on, Bootlegger Cove Clay, is unstable or could liquefy. It wasn’t just the way it was built, but really more that it won’t stand the test of time. There’s real concern that it won’t be stable over time,” Owens  said.

The now defunct VECO Corporation produced a stability study on the port and VECO was then purchased by CH2M Hill. Now that company says its predecessor’s study was bad. The municipality is suing three parties: Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, or ICRC; CH2M Hill Alaska, and PND Engineers. Kenton Braun is the Vice President of PND Engineers. He defends his company’s design and says the problems arose because of incorrect installation.

“The reason that we’re all talking is because the construction went bad out there and it was the methodology that led to the problems,” Braun said.

Braun says contractors to ICRC, the general contractor working for the Maritime administration, which was managing the project for the city, are responsible.

“We were tasked to design the facility. What happened was it went wrong when it went to construction – it was an inexperienced contractor that got involved and failed to construct it properly,” Braun said.

Braun says contractors tried to drive the metal sheets into the earth by pounding them in at close-range from the shore with a pile-driving hammer. He says the slope began to erode into the partially constructed wall increasing pressure, making it difficult to drive the sheets in. He says they could have used a barge from the water side, which is a method that had been proven successful.

The port project was started back in 2003 under Mayor George Wuerch and Port Director Bill Sheffield. The Design was approved in 2006 Under Mayor Mark Begich. Sheffield was still the Port Director. The Sullivan administration has led the push to get the Municipality reimbursed for its losses.

The Municipality has an ongoing relationship with the U.S. Maritime administration to complete the project and is not suing them. Earlier this month, CH2M Hill released a second study and presented three new designs for the administration to consider. Attorneys say they will likely decide on a new design in the coming months.