Engineering Society Accused of Covering Up Design Flaws in Investigations of Katrina, World Trade Center
NEW ORLEANS – The professional organization for engineers who build the nation's roads, dams and bridges has been accused by fellow engineers of covering up catastrophic design flaws while investigating national disasters.
After the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the levee failures caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the federal government paid the American Society of Civil Engineers to investigate what went wrong.
Critics now accuse the group of covering up engineering mistakes, downplaying the need to alter building standards, and using the investigations to protect engineers and government agencies from lawsuits.
Similar accusations arose after both disasters, but the most recent allegations have pressured the organization to convene an independent panel to investigate.
"They want to make sure that they do things the right way and that they learn lessons from the studies they do," said Sherwood Boelhert, a retired Republican congressman from New York who heads the panel. He led the House Science Committee for six years.
The panel is expected to issue a report by the end of April and may recommend that the society stop taking money from government agencies for disaster investigations.
The engineering group says it takes the allegations seriously, but it has declined to comment until completion of the panel's report and an internal ethics review.
In the World Trade Center case, critics contend the engineering society wrongly concluded skyscrapers cannot withstand getting hit by airplanes. In the hurricane investigation, it was accused of suggesting that the power of the storm was as big a problem as the poorly designed levees.
The group has about 140,000 members and is based in Reston, Va. It sets engineering standards and codes and publishes technical books and a glossy magazine. Members testify regularly before Congress and issue an annual report on the state of the nation's public-works projects.
The society got a $1.1 million grant from the Army Corps of Engineers to study the levee failures. Similarly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency paid the group about $257,000 to investigate the World Trade Center collapse.
The engineers were not involved in investigating last year's bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
The society issued a report last year that blamed the levee failures on poor design and the Corps' use of incorrect engineering data.
Raymond Seed, a levee expert at the University of California, Berkeley, was among the first to question the society's involvement. He was on a team funded by the National Science Foundation to study the New Orleans flood.
Seed accused the engineering society and the Army Corps of collusion, writing an Oct. 20 letter alleging that the two organizations worked together "to promulgate misleading studies and statements, to subvert appropriate independent investigations ... to literally attempt to change some of the critical apparent answers regarding lessons to be learned."
Maj. Gen. Don Riley, the corps' director of civil works, disputed Seed's allegations at a December meeting in New Orleans.
"He talks about the supposed cover-up," Riley said. "Well, our people live here in New Orleans ... We don't stand behind our work. We live behind our work."
In 2002, the society's report on the World Trade Center praised the buildings for remaining standing long enough to allow tens thousands of people to flee.
But, the report said, skyscrapers are not typically designed to withstand airplane impacts. Instead of hardening buildings against such impacts, it recommended improving aviation security and fire protection.
Abolhassan Astaneh-Asl, a structural engineer and forensics expert, contends his computer simulations disprove the society's findings that skyscrapers could not be designed to withstand the impact of a jetliner.
Astaneh-Asl, who received money from the National Science Foundation to investigate the collapse, insisted most New York skyscrapers built with traditional designs would survive such an impact and prevent the kind of fires that brought down the twin towers.
He also questioned the makeup of the society's investigation team. On the team were the wife of the trade center's structural engineer and a representative of the buildings' original design team.
"I call this moral corruption," said Astaneh-Asl, who is on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley.
Gene Corley, a forensics expert and team leader on the society's report, said employing people with ties to the original builders was necessary because they had access to information that was difficult to get any other way.
Corley said the society's study was peer-reviewed and its credibility was upheld by follow-up studies, including one by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
"I hope someone looks into the people making the accusations," Corley said. "That's a sordid tale."