Creepy glue: Dam firm settles in death, dodges questions

Fatal friction: Gannett Fleming was faulted for its system of hanging concrete ceiling panels, each weighing up to 4,700 pounds, with bolts inserted into glue-filled holes.

The company that keeps Charlottesville unsure whether to laugh or cry over its work on the community's 50-year water plan helped dry some tears in Boston recently. Two years after one of its projects became a deathtrap for a mother of three, Gannett Fleming has apparently agreed to help pay $28 million to the woman's family.

Survivors of 38-year-old Milena Del Valle will receive the money, via a settlement with Gannett Fleming and other companies involved in construction of a flawed auto tunnel in the Big Dig, a mammoth Boston highway project, it was announced the night of September 30.

A passenger in a car driven by her husband, Del Valle died in July 2006, after a nearly three-ton concrete panel in an Interstate 90 connector tunnel fell from the ceiling. Gannett Fleming had designed the ceiling panels and the anchoring system.

Gannett Fleming attempted to defend its system of hanging the heavy panels by anchoring threaded bolts in epoxy-filled holes rather than tying in to structural members. After the suit was filed, blame fell particularly hard on the firm that supplied the epoxy, with Massachusetts charging the fastener firm with manslaughter.

A 132-page report by the National Transportation Safety Board, finding that Gannett Fleming failed to understand that the glue could creep out of the holes, declared that the firm demonstrated "no consideration of the service life of the adhesive anchors."

gannett fleming proposal water rwsaA page from Gannett Fleming's successful bid to carry out the community's 2002 water plan, which the company promptly dumped to embark instead on a reservoir/pipeline project.

The state reached a wide-ranging, $458 million settlement with several of the Big Dig's lead construction and design firms in January. The September 30 announcement marked the end of a private lawsuit.

Gannett Fleming's Charlottesville work has not been lethal, but it has been been controversial. In February, before the extent of the controversy became evident, a former Charlottesville City Councilor said, "When they want you to do something, they make the numbers as low as possible. When they don't, they make them as high as possible."

Subsequently, on something Gannett Fleming tried to malign, dredging, private contractors began submitting proposals for as little as one tenth of the company estimate. Then, on September 22, what Gannett Fleming had long touted as a $37 million dam turned out to cost about $100 million.

Reached by telephone one day later, Gannett Fleming engineer Aaron Keno demanded that all questions get submitted in writing, so ten questions were submitted within the hour. Two days later, Keno emailed a brief statement about the company’s willingness to help the citizens of Charlottesville.

–last updated 4:09pm, October 13
original headline: Gannett Fleming: Firm settles in death, dodges questions


So what were the questions submitted to the engineer?

In the interests of transparency, here ya go:

Date: Tue, 23 Sep 2008 12:27:02 -0400
To: Tom Frederick
From: Hawes Spencer
Subject: questions for Aaron Keno

Dear Tom,

Aaron Keno told me a moment ago that he'd be happy to answer my questions if I submitted them to you. So here goes:

• How do you feel about the stop work order that Tom Frederick alleges that he asked your firm to accept?

• How do you explain such a large discrepancy between the $37.2 million preliminary estimate and the new range that flirts with nearly $100 million-- even after Schnabel pronounced the underlying stone as "very good to good"?

• What do you think about the Rivanna announcement of your new estimates and, in particular, the decision to omit the cost of the I-64 embankment, an omission which underestimates the magnitude of your new figures?

• It's been alleged that you have overestimated things you wish to avoid (dredging) while underestimating things you wish to design (dam, pipeline)-- how do you respond?

• It's been alleged that the pipeline you've proposed will suffer from similar price rises during the design phase and that projected operating costs underestimate the price of electricity and chemicals-- how do you respond?

• Now that firms are clamoring to dredge the Rivanna Reservoir for somewhat less money than you estimated it would cost, when might you revise your estimates?

• Given some of the negative reactions to the water plan toward which you steered the community and the way that the the Gannett-Fleming name evokes less than positive reactions in some quarters, how do you deal with that?

• Why won't you allow me interview you directly?

• Have there been other times besides this case when your company's design phase estimates turned out to be more the double the preliminary estimates, and in which specific cases did this happen?

• Can you tell me when, if ever, you have notified the DEQ and the Army Corps that some of your work has come under such question as to constitute new information that may have a bearing on the secured permits?

I have already published online an article based on yesterday's events, but I plan to write a follow-up, and it would be very helpful-- unless you can answer my questions in the next hour (in which case I could amend this already-completed story)-- to receive your answers by 2pm on Thursday, September 25, about two days from now.

Thank you
-- * -- * -- * -- * -- * -- * --
Hawes C. Spencer, editor/publisher
The Hook
100 Second Street, N.W.
Charlottesville, VA 22902

Date: Thu, 25 Sep 2008 13:25:59 -0400
From: "Keno, Aaron D."

Mr. Spencer:

The following response is provided to the questions you posed to Mr. Frederick.

Over the last five years, Gannett Fleming has assisted the Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority (RWSA) in examining numerous conceptual alternatives for meeting the community’s projected 50-year public water supply needs. After a lengthy screening process that included extensive public input, Gannett Fleming continued assisting the Authority and successfully secured the regulatory permits for the preferred alternative; which is known as the Expanded Ragged Mountain Reservoir Concept. Now that this project has reached the preliminary design stage, more information, including detailed site investigations, has become known about the requirements to construct a reliable and safe structure. In addition, within the last several years, concrete, steel and fuel, which are all required to construct the project, have experienced dramatic price increases. These events have resulted in the current estimated construction cost being greater than the earlier conceptual-level estimate.

Throughout the life of this project, Gannett Fleming has provided professional services and opinions that are fully in the best interest of the local community. Our firm stands ready to support RWSA as it deliberates on how to proceed with meeting future water supply needs for its customers.


Aaron D. Keno, P.E.
Vice President
Gannett Fleming, Inc.

"In addition, within the last several years, concrete, steel and fuel, which are all required to construct the project, have experienced dramatic price increases." And this caused 90% decline in the estimates fordredging? I should change my name to Cville Hot Air Dectector.

That's why we love you, Dr. Hong. You are truly a caring, compassionate man - in Johnston & Murphy shoes - who is a joy to come to see...even if the news is bad. If anyone had to deliver bad news to me, I would want it to be you. So even though I'm far away in the middle of corn country, I remember how wonderful you are and wish I was still able to be your patient.