Flood Defense director at odds with engineering firm
PDT Staff Writer
After a recent Portsmouth City Council meeting in which the company was not talked about in glowing terms, Howerton Engineering has come out swinging, and now Portsmouth Wastewater and Flood Defense Director Rick Duncan has responded.
Duncan additionally revealed correspondence with Portsmouth Mayor David Malone regarding a member of City Council communicating with Howertown without consulting the Wastewater Department.
In a letter to Portsmouth Mayor David Malone, dated May 13, 2013, Duncan said, “I have learned that questions have been raised regarding my recommendation to City Council at the April 22 conference meeting. It is unfortunate that a Council member continues to refuse to give me the simple courtesy of bringing his concerns about the performance of my duties to my attention. In my opinion this is unprofessional and counterproductive. I am open to Council members at any time. The Councilman is providing misinformation regarding the analysis methodologies accepted by the Corps of Engineers and the qualifications of the consultants involved and ultimately about the safety of our levee.”
Duncan does not specify which member of Council he is referring to.
In a letter to the Daily Times, Howerton said they wanted to clear up questions about the levee certification process that came up during that meeting.
In his comments, Richard L. Howerton said the city was given plenty of lead time to undertake the certification process. The city was notified, and they executed a PAL Agreement in 2009.
He said in the fall of 2009, Duncan requested and received a proposal from Environmental Engineering Service (EES) to organize a project team and attempt to get the project completed on a fast-track process before the city could lose its certification, because if they did not, the new FEMA Map would define the majority of the city as a floodplain. Howerton said Duncan presented the EES contract to Council for a first reading, prior to his termination.
“It must be noted that EES had no overall experience in levee certification; but at Duncan’s request, organized a project team that had significant experience in the various elements required to complete the certification process,” Howerton said in his letter.
Additionally, he said, prior to the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, no firms were performing FEMA levee certifications.
“To somehow imply that any firm was somehow more qualified in doing these certifications would be misleading,” Howerton said.
It goes on to say Mayor Jane Murray decided to award the FEMA Levee Certification to Howerton Engineering. Howerton said it is important to note that their proposal included a project team with significant experience in the various elements required to complete the certification process, including EES.
“Our team members are independent consultants, and do not work for the Corp of Engineers, this allowing us to provide independent results,” Howerton said. “The certification process moved forward in a timely manner and was nearing completion when Mr. Duncan returned in 2011. With the exception of two pump stations which could not be inspected because for three years City staff has not completed the task of cleaning the stations, most elements of the certification are unquestioned.”
Howerton said the potential under-seepage problem is a different story.
“The geotechnical components of the FEMA Levee Certification were conducted by our project team member, Thelen Associates, Inc. Thelen celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011, and is unquestionably qualified to conduct the FEMA required evaluations. They have previous experience in performing on FEMA Levee Certification projects,” according to Howerton’s letter. “Mr. Duncan is well aware of Thelen’s role as a team member. Therefore, his pronouncement that: ‘In my opinion, this is why we are in this situation, because the consultant (Howerton) hadn’t done it before.’ is unfounded.”
At the Portsmouth City Council meeting in question, Duncan said, “In my opinion this is why we are in this situation, because the consultant (Howerton) hadn’t done it before.”
In response to Howerton’s position on the experience issue, Duncan said, “As the Director of Wastewater and Flood Defense for Portsmouth, I have used Howerton Engineering’s services on several projects without incident. However, in the case of the FEMA Flood Protection certification project, Howerton had no previous experience performing floodwall certification when the previous mayor gave them a $600,000 contract to certify our flood defense system. Howerton used Thelen Associates as a subconsultant to perform the geotechnical analysis of the levee. Thelen is a respected engineering firm in the Cincinnati area.”
Howerton said dissecting the differing opinions regarding the status of the levee should be left to those within the field.
“The reason the city is in the ‘situation’ it is in, is because the Thelen geotechnical analysis revealed deficiencies in the levee system related to under-seepage,” Howerton wrote. “Evaluating the technical merit of the differing professional opinions issued by Thelen and AMEC, is something that should be left to civil engineers with expertise in this area of study.”
Howerton said the reason the city selected the AMEC solution is because it appears to be the more cost effective solution.
“We stress the word ‘appears’, it needs to be stated, just because this option is more cost effective, does not mean it is the correct solution,” Howerton said. “It should be noted that AMEC, does do work for the Corp of Engineers.”
Duncan said AMEC was qualified.
“Other engineering firms, such as AMEC, have previously performed FEMA floodwall certification projects. AMEC, an engineering firm with over 8,000 employees in the U.S., has a large network of engineers that work extensively on floodwalls, levees and dams,” Duncan countered. “AMEC has done many dams and levee projects across the country, and multiple FEMA certifications including Maysville and New Boston in our area, along with other projects for the United States Army Corps of Engineers.”
Duncan went on to say, “One way to understand our current situation is to compare it to surgery. If your family doctor says you need to have a major operation that will cost a lot of money, you would be wise to get a second opinion. If your doctor says he wants to perform brain surgery on you, it would be very wise to determine your best option and to identify the most experienced and knowledgeable surgeon available.”
Howerton also took exception with a statement in a council meeting in 2011, that the Huntington District Corps of Engineers told Duncan that they have not seen any similar issues in the levees in its district, saying such comments are “obviously irrelevant, and obviously not the case. Both consultants discovered under-seepage issues with the Portsmouth levee. They only disagree with the extent.”
Howerton went on to comment that in the fall of 2011, Duncan had made a comment to council that the Corp of Engineers recommended the city obtain a second opinion.
“We know that that was not case,” Howerton said. “The Corp of Engineers did not make this recommendation.”
Howerton also took issue with a statement by City Solicitor John Haas who said that he did not believe AMEC would have any liability for its recommendations, since FEMA would have signed off on the project.
“This statement is inaccurate. Neither FEMA nor the Corps of Engineers accepts any liability for the certification,” the letter stated.
Lastly, Howerton said, in addition to delaying the Certification Process initially, resolution of the under-seepage issue has taken 26 months, with many more months to follow. And that in the meantime, the FEMA mapping process proceeds without as certified levee system.
In his response statement, Duncan said, “Howerton told the city, based on the Thelen analysis, we would need to install a long system of relief wells (about 7000 feet) to control ‘underseepage.’ The cost estimate to do this work was from $1 to $3 million. I recommended to City Council at that time that we get a second opinion. Council approved a contract with AMEC who, after reviewing the Thelen data, performed their own analysis of the levee (including drilling, lab testing, modeling) and recommended the installation of two relief wells at a cost of about $200,000, in a small area adjacent to Pump Station No. 5 that was modified sometime after the levee was constructed. Other than that 100-foot section, AMEC’s analysis indicated that the current levee was sufficiently constructed to meet the requested FEMA evaluation and that AMEC was willing to certify this component of the levee based on their analysis.”
Duncan said Howerton’s and Thelen’s recommendation was based on a seepage evaluation technique called ‘leaky blanket” analysis. This technique has been used for many years by the Corps of Engineers and geotechnical engineering firms. “Leaky blanket” analysis is used for preliminary estimates, however, when major expenses are being considered (such as the $1 to $3 million Howerton project), the use of more advanced computer programs is recommended. AMEC used a specialized computer program called SEEP-W to analyze Portsmouth’s levee.
“For whatever reason, Howerton and Thelen used only the ‘leaky blanket theory’ analysis method and did not use the newer and more accurate SEEP-W program as recommended by the Corps of Engineers. Anyone who is interested can find the Corps of Engineers guidelines by Googling “Design Guidance for Levee Underseepage, ETL 1110-1-569,” Duncan said. “After I received AMEC’s second opinion, I met with the engineers involved (Thelen, Howerton and AMEC). The parties agreed that each firm would certify the portions of the levee that they were comfortable with and a joint certification would be submitted to FEMA. The parties also agreed that since AMEC is already certifying the New Boston floodwall, involving AMEC would have the advantage allowing the city and the village to be certified together. Joint certification of both floodwalls is a FEMA requirement. I believed that these agreements were made in good faith.”
Duncan contends there were other components to the floodwall certification.
“Howerton has apparently met secretly with selected council members to try to convince the city to go with the much more expensive and unnecessary ‘operation’ that would cost the city up to $3 million,” he said. “Fortunately, City Council decided to concur with the AMEC recommendation for the much less expensive option. In spite of these attempts to discredit my recommendations, I am committed to complete this certification process as cost efficiently as possible and I remain hopeful that we can all work together to certify the safety of the city’s flood defense system.”
Duncan went on to say, “Ultimately we must complete this effort to ensure the continued FEMA coverage of our city. My recommendation remains to spend roughly $200,000 on the AMEC solution versus $1 to $3 million on the Howerton solution.”
The Daily Times faxed a copy of the letter from Howerton to the Mayor’s Office. There was no response as of Tuesday afternoon.
Frank Lewis may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 252, or at email@example.com. For breaking news, follow Frank on Twitter @FrankLewisPDT
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