Engineer society accused of cover-ups


By Cain Burdeau, Associated Press Writer
March 25, 2008

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

“I hope someone looks into the people making the accusations,” Corley
said. “That’s a sordid tale.”


On the Web:

The American Society of Civil Engineers:

Raymond Seed’s letter:

Executive summary of the ASCE and FEMA study of the World Trade Center:

ASCE study of New Orleans’ levees:

Source URL:

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