Port engineering firm faults construction, not design

Its prized Port of Anchorage project stalled and under fire, PND Engineers Inc. is fighting back, arguing that the problem was never its unusual design but rather flaws in construction. A lawsuit over the problematic new dock appears to be born out of politics, not facts, PND says.

The municipality of Anchorage earlier this month sued PND, which designed the new dock structure; the project construction manager, known as ICRC; and one of PND's subcontractors, CH2M Hill Alaska Inc., in its prior role as Veco Alaska Inc.

So far, more than $300 million has been spent on the project but a review overseen by the Army Corps of Engineers and done by separate engineers with CH2M Hill found that even if it were built correctly, the planned new dock was at risk of failing during a major earthquake. Almost all the goods consumed in Alaska arrive through the Port of Anchorage.

PND president John Pickering said he was surprised the municipality sued and that his firm had offered to work with the city to address the problems.

"PND looks forward to the opportunity of making sure the full and compete facts are aired, however we are very disappointed that this lawsuit was filed as it appears to be motivated not by the facts of the situation, but by the political fallout from a project that has been mired with challenges and the corresponding need to blame someone," PND said Tuesday in a written statement.

Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan said Tuesday that many parties were involved and that legal actions sometimes cast a wide net.

"I think it's just wise to make sure you include everyone in the initial consideration of legal ramifications," Sullivan said.


He said the city allowed PND to present its side at a work session in February with the Anchorage Assembly and the Geotechnical Advisory Commission but he didn't know of any effort to work together beyond that.

ICRC, or Integrated Concepts and Research Corp., disputes that it was the "technical authority" on the project, said Diana Carlson, who served as ICRC's vice president in Alaska overseeing the project. She said by e-mail that she is now with the firm's parent company, VSE Corporation. Efforts to reach any current ICRC representatives were unsuccessful.

ICRC closed its Alaska operations last year after its federal contract ended and some financial issues with subcontractors were sorted out, she said. VSE has divested itself of ICRC, Carlson said.

She said that ICRC tried to halt the project during the winter of 2008-09 after the problems were becoming apparent, but was ordered to keep the work going.

Sullivan said ICRC's contract put it in charge of the construction.

PND contends it identified the problems with constructing its Open Cell Sheet Pile design, in which sheets of steel are hammered into U-shaped cells that are then backfilled with gravel to create new land. During the port project, sheets bent and twisted during installation, sometimes when they hit rocks in the construction zone under the seafloor.

"PND was the first to raise construction concerns and called for dredging and dive surveys that confirmed construction-related damage in 2009," Pickering said in the written statement.

The CH2M Hill review even acknowledged that PND used due diligence in its engineering, PND points out. "This high-quality work included field drilling and sampling, (soil strength) testing, geophysical testing and much of the laboratory testing program," the CH2M Hill review said. "State-of-the-practice methods were also used to characterize expected levels of seismic shaking."

Problems only emerge with the design by "changing the design parameters and using novel testing techniques," PND says.

A new contractor, West Construction Co., was able to successfully install the sheet pile using different techniques, including working from a barge and pre-drilling before inserting the pile, the company said in a letter included as part of PND's pitch.

Sullivan said the various sides are making their best arguments.

Some of PND's contentions may be on target, he said. For instance, PND says that CH2M Hill's recent review of whether its design would work improperly factored in heavy loads along the dock. But at the Port of Anchorage, the big cargo carriers quickly move their shipments off the dock and containers aren't stacked up all along the dock, PND notes.

"I thought that was a valid point that PND made as well," Sullivan said.

The city already hired private lawyers for the lawsuit and they will bring in forensic engineers to analyze CH2M Hill's suitability study and the recommended options for finishing the project, Sullivan said.

"When you've got two firms and there's a little bit of 'he said she said' it's good to get an independent third party that has no skin in the game to make sure and help us define what a best path forward is," the mayor said.

Some of the new land already created could remain, Sullivan said. The city probably could complete the project for another $500 million, he said, of which it has $132 million in hand.

Efforts to speak with representatives of CH2M Hill about the lawsuit, and the firm's new role, have been unsuccessful.


Reach Lisa Demer at or 257-4390.


Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.