Design problems plague Port of Anchorage expansion

Despite an additional appropriation in the recently approved capital budget, reports of failed designs continue to plague the more than $750 million Port of Anchorage expansion project.

By Kirsten Adams

June 7, 2010

Despite an additional appropriation in the recently approved capital budget, reports of failed designs continue to plague the more than $750 million Port of Anchorage expansion project.

The project would use an open cell sheet pile design to add 130 acres of dock space to the Port. However, a former Port employee believes the design is incompatible with the silty conditions in Cook Inlet, causing damage to newly installed docks and millions of extra dollars in sub-contractor costs.

“The mud is so tough and requires extensive pounding to get in; and that’s what caused most of the damage,” said the former employee, who asked to remain anonymous. “They couldn’t backfill, and when they could backfill it was moving. They could actually see the dock face moving.” 

The design, created by Dennis Nottingham of PND Engineers in 1980, uses steel sheet pile membranes to create cells to support the dock face. The cells are designed to be supported by anchors embedded in the soil and by the soil itself, but the silty Inlet conditions continue to hamper the process.

Integrated Concepts and Research Corporation, the project management contractor for the expansion project, hired construction company QAP to install more than $95 million worth of open cells sheet pilings. When some of the pilings began to shift, however, QAP was removed from the project and reimbursed $80 million for the work it partially completed. ICRC re-opened bidding on the project, including re-installation of the moving pilings.

“Beginning last fall, they (Port management) had started negotiations on how to get QAP out of there, there were attorneys involved,” the former employee said. “It’s been an issue for a while; there are a whole bunch of problems.”

Diana Carlson, Project Principal for ICRC, said bidding is open to complete the work begun by QAP. When selected, the new contractor would install the remaining 11 steel cell pilings as well as re-install the 11 moving pilings partially completed by QAP, and the bid solicitation estimates the cost at more than $50 million.

“A follow-on contractor will loosen that steel this season, re-template into pile driving support systems, and complete the installation in accordance with the required rules and regulations, in addition to performing other duties planned for 2010,” wrote Carlson via email.

The recent cell piling movement is not the first hint of design flaws, however. Independent analysis of the structure from as early as 2002 noted potential risks with using the proposed design with this construction site.

A geotechnical review authored by engineering firm Lachel & Associates revealed the proposed open cell piling design fell far below acceptable safety standards and predicted “global cell failure” because of the sliding soil of the inlet.

A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers file on the expansion project included information from the American Society of Civil Engineers detailing the pitfalls of the open cell sheet pile design as well as several independent analyses listing potential problems associated with the design.

While the file reached no conclusions about a preferred design alternative, an email between an environmental group, the Corps and the U.S. Maritime Administration suggested the design was chosen for economic reasons.

“From the start of this process, MARAD has presumed the open cell sheet pile design to be the preferred alternative, and has disregarded federal agencies and other experts who have questioned the safety and other aspects of this design,” wrote Bob Shavelson, Executive Director of Cook Inlet Keepers, in early 2006. “Additionally, various engineers have drawn into question the safety and stability of the proposed sheet pile design during anticipated seismic events.”

“While MARAD may certainly weight the economic implications when deciding what alternatives are practicable, it cannot flatly ignore expert opinions contradicting MARAD’s preferred approach.”

Construction on the project continues. The budget, originally estimated at almost $400 million, has grown to more than $750 million. On Thursday, Governor Sean Parnell approved another $20 million appropriation for Port construction.

ICRC did not respond to questions regarding the design and representatives from QAP did not respond to emails or phone calls.

“I can’t talk, we’re on a bid,” Carlson said.

Kirsten Adams is an investigative reporter with the Alaska Watchdog. She can be reached at