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Coastal Voices: No compromise on dock safety

The July 31 article, “Harbor drilling methods debated,” may have caused some confusion in the community regarding the status of the drilling method for the new boat basin.

The article gave some people the impression that (a) the Harbor engineers doubted the validity of the alternative drilling technique, but (b) the Harbor Commission has decided to use the alternative technique because (c) the contractor is pushing it and (d) the Harbor would save a few dollars, and (e) in case the new harbor fails, the commission would rely on another engineering firm’s liability insurance to replace it.

This impression is not correct.   Here is the background:

 The harbor’s engineers designing the pilings and docks are the team of Stover Engineering, Ben C. Gerwick, and Treadwell & Rollo.  They designed the new harbor to be resistant to a 50-year tsunami event.

The construction technique they specified for docks and pilings is to (i) drill a 48-inch diameter hole, (ii) locate the 30-inch piling precisely in the hole, (iii) cement the piling in place, (iv) then build the floating cement docks to the pilings.

Their calculations make them confident that this system will resist a 50-year tsunami. This is the method that Dutra is currently required to use by our contract.

Dutra proposed an alternative method. It suggested (i) building the docks in the water, (ii) dropping a piling through the pile hoop on the dock, and (iii) drilling a 30” hole (from the inside  of the piling) that pulls the piling into the hole during drilling.  Dutra’s opinion is that this is cheaper and faster than the method currently in the contract. 

This general sequence of events is not unusual. It is called value engineering. When the contract goes to bid, all the interested contractors bid on the same specifications as set forth by the engineers. Once a successful bidder is selected, that bidder can propose less expensive methods of building the project. If the less expensive method is accepted by the owner, the contractor and owner split the cost savings. For the Inner Boat Basin, acceptance by the owner (i.e. the Harbor District) requires approval by the Harbor’s engineering team.

The Harbor’s engineering team was not familiar with the alternative drilling method proposed by Dutra Construction Company.   Its unfamiliarity did not mean the alternative method is unsuitable or unworkable. It just means it had not seen it used. Consequently, our engineering team adopted a skeptical  (dictionary meaning = questioning) attitude. This is quite appropriate. When confronted with a new method of installing piles, they basically said, “OK, prove to us that this new method will result in a piling installation that is just as strong as the method we designed and included in the contract.”     

Because of the headline in the newspaper, I want to emphasize that there is no “debate” here.  A debate implies two sides, one advocating for, the other advocating against, a particular topic or idea. Our engineering team is not “debating” Dutra’s engineering team.

What is going on is more akin to a process of scientific inquiry. Dutra has proposed a drilling method that it says is just as strong,  but faster and cheaper, than the method currently in the contract.   Our engineers have said, “OK, prove it.” Dutra’s engineering team is endeavoring to do just that.  They have presented (a) evidence of the successful use of this alternative technique in other locations and (b) a testing protocol that will be used to verify the success of the alternative technique in our harbor.   Our engineering team is reviewing Dutra’s evidence. This is a peer review process, not a debate.

 At the end of the review process, if our engineering team concludes the alternative drilling method results in pilings as strong as the currently required drilling method, then the Harbor will consider use of the alternative technique. After all, if the end product is strong enough to resist a 50-year tsunami, then we all want to save money and get the pilings and docks installed faster. But no one at the Harbor or on our engineering team has ever suggested that we would compromise the integrity of any part of the project just to save a few dollars. 

At this point, no final decision has been made about how to install the pilings. The contract calls for the original drilling method to be used. Once our engineering team completes its review, it will make a recommendation on the suitability of the alternative technique.  Once we have the engineering review, the Harbor Commission will make a decision on how to proceed. I expect that decision will turn on the strength of the installed pilings, not a few dollars in savings.

This is a large and complicated project. It is easy for people to become confused as we work through the regulatory and construction process. I think it is important to reassure everyone that, while we will build the harbor in an economical and efficient manner, we will not compromise the integrity of the end product. 

Richard Young is the CEO/Harbormaster for the Crescent City Harbor District.

 

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