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NJDOT Rejected Warnings Ahead of 2021 New Jersey I-295 Wall Collapse, CBS Philadelphia Investigation Finds

BELLMAWR, N.J. (CBS) — If you’ve driven up the coast from Philadelphia or come into town from New Jersey in the last five years, you’ve probably driven past a retaining wall, known as Wall 22, as it is a much of the I-295 Direct Connect project. but in March 25, 2021, Wall 22 Failure.

The wall supported an elevated road that had not yet been opened to traffic. Fortunately, no one was injured.

In January 2022, a The investigative engineering report details the complex causes. of the failure of the wall. He found the first signs of deterioration in the wall starting on March 11, two weeks before its collapse. Our investigation found that contractors had concerns before it collapsed.

Even three years later, Patti Munz can easily remember exactly where she was on the morning of March 25, 2021.

“I was standing on my doorstep and I heard it,” Munz said. “I see all the (New Jersey Department of Transportation) workers right there and I walk over. I’m like, ‘What’s going on?’ They say, ‘The wall collapsed.'”

The wall workers were referring to that had just collapsed was identified in construction documents as “Wall 22,” a retaining wall designed to support a future highway that is part of the I-295 Direct Connect Project.

“Wall 22”, a retaining wall designed to support a future highway that is part of the I-295 Direct Connect Project.

Munz, who watched the roughly nine-month construction of Wall 22 from his home, didn’t realize that at around the same time Thursday morning, a flurry of emails were being sent among NJDOT workers discussing the failure. .

Patti Munz watched from her home the construction of Wall 22, which lasted approximately nine months, and remembered the moment it collapsed on March 25.

In one email, an NJDOT employee sent a co-worker, who at the time was a regional construction engineer, an email thread from November 2018, in which the project’s contractor, South State Inc., expressed his concern about the design of the wall. .

The regional construction engineer responded, “Reading the claim, it’s almost like you have a crystal ball.”

That email was obtained in a two-year CBS News Philadelphia investigation into why Wall 22 failed and whether it could have been prevented. Through its investigation, CBS News Philadelphia discovered that NJDOT ignored years of warnings from South State Inc. about Wall 22 until it was too late.

NJDOT said demolishing Wall 22 and constructing a new wall will cost taxpayers an additional $92 million, of which $74 million will come from the federal government.

The investigation required obtaining and reviewing more than 2,000 pages of internal emails, meeting minutes and contract notices, and multiple interviews with neighbors who live and work near the construction site, engineering experts and a state legislator.

NJDOT declined multiple interview requests from CBS News Philadelphia and provided only a written statement. The engineering firm that designed the wall, the contractor that oversaw the wall’s construction, and their subcontractors declined interview requests, did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment, or referred CBS News Philadelphia to NJDOT for comment.

‘Human weaknesses’

The I-295 Direct Connection Project is located in Bellmawr at the intersection of I-295, I-76 and Route 42.

The billion-dollar project, designed to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety, has been divided into four contracts and is currently halfway through the third contract.

Wall 22 is one of 22 retaining walls being built on the project. At the time of its failure, Wall 22 supported an elevated highway that was not yet open to traffic.

The parish church of St Joachim’s Annunciation in Bellmawr overlooks the construction site.

Retired priest Kenneth Hallahan, who helps at the church, recalled how he and parishioners reacted to the wall’s collapse.

“In general, there are a lot of jokes about engineers, about planning and about human foibles,” Hallahan said.

Retired priest Kenneth Hallahan, who helps at the church, recalled how he and parishioners reacted to the wall’s collapse.

It was no joking matter for Assemblyman Bill Moen, Jr.

“We know this will have an impact on the community, and we will be on this and make sure we provide answers to the public from the Department of Transportation,” Moen said. “When we need it, we demand those answers.”

Assemblyman Bill Moen, Jr.

I-11

Some answers to why Wall 22 collapsed emerged in a forensic engineering report dated January 2022.

The report, commissioned by NJDOT and submitted by engineering firm Hardesty & Hanover, described the collapse as “complex” and listed four factors that led to the wall’s failure: The column-supported embankment system did not provide an adequate, secure foundation ; The area had a high groundwater level, which was made worse by heavy rain the day before the collapse.

But first on the list, according to the report, “the I-11 sand material used for the embankment and slope was not an appropriate material to support a 30-foot-tall retaining wall.”

But what the report doesn’t mention, and what CBS News Philadelphia found through its investigation, is a November 2018 contract notice submitted by the project’s contractor, South State Inc., to NJDOT.

In it, South State wrote that since December 2017, more than three years before the wall collapsed, the contractor repeatedly expressed “serious concerns” about the placement of I-11 sand under Wall 22, describing its use as a “mistake.” “.

But South State said the department dismissed its concerns.

The contractor included emails from late October 2018 showing that at one point NJDOT was willing to switch to a different material, but changed its mind after, among other things, discovering that it would cost $70,000 to redo the working drawing.

South State warned NJDOT: “You are specifically assuming all risk of any and all potential damages (direct, consequential or otherwise) in any form should the design fail.”

Grady Hillhouse is a licensed engineer and author, best known for his popular “Practical Engineering” online video series, which, according to YouTube, has more than 3.5 million subscribers. He discussed the collapse of Wall 22 in a video about retaining wall failures two years ago.

CBS News Philadelphia asked Hillhouse to review the documents it obtained.

“To me, that was one of the most surprising parts of this whole story,” Hillhouse said. “For a contractor to put it in writing and document that he has serious concerns about the design from the beginning is a big deal.”

Grady Hillhouse is a licensed engineer and author, best known for his popular “Practical Engineering” online video series, which, according to YouTube, has more than 3.5 million subscribers.

NJDOT responded to South State’s November 2018 contract notice a few days later.

He wrote that using I-11 is not a mistake, adding that unless South State wanted to pay out of pocket to use a different material, it should continue with I-11.

“We see DOT dismissing those concerns all the time,” Hillhouse said. “If you have a contractor who puts your concerns in writing and documents them, that’s something you should pay attention to.

First signs of distress

Construction of Wall 22 began in late 2018 and was completed in August 2019.

During that time, South State reported multiple problems at the site, including soil loss and sinkholes behind the wall.

According to the forensic engineering report, on March 11, 2021, cracks or “lateral deformations” began to appear in the road pavement.

On March 23, a downward movement of the terrain was detected.

Heavy rain fell on March 24, and then on March 25, at 7:59 a.m., an NJDOT project engineer sent an email: “Wall 22 failure overnight.”

About half an hour later, an NJDOT engineer sent an email thread to a co-worker containing the original contract notice from November 2018. That co-worker responded: “Reading the claim, it’s almost like they had a ball of Cristal”.

CBS News Philadelphia submitted these documents to Moen, who has been closely monitoring the project’s progress.

“I would say at this point, I think it’s probably more of a question for the Department of Transportation to answer,” Moen said. “In fact, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about it.”

NJDOT declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview. Instead, it issued a statement saying, in part, that “the structure beneath the highway gave way due to an excessive amount of rain and changes in groundwater conditions that affected the foundation on which the wall rested. The material that supports the wall did not work as expected. “.

South State and its subcontractors did not respond or declined CBS News Philadelphia’s repeated requests for interviews, and the project engineer, Dewberry, who designed the embankment containing the I-11 material, referred CBS News Philadelphia to NJDOT.

Bible lessons

Wall 22 is currently being rebuilt and, according to NJDOT, will use a different design.

“It will be a cast-in-place reinforced concrete wall with H-shaped steel piles and deep foundations with drilled wells and a flatter slope,” NJDOT wrote in its statement. “Additional drainage will also be incorporated into the design.”

NJDOT said the current construction contract, which includes Wall 22, will not be completed until 2028.

Homeowners who live near the project, including Munz and Linda Mitcham, did not hesitate to share their opinions on the CBS News Philadelphia investigation.

“That makes me very angry,” Munz said. “Why doesn’t (NJDOT) just listen?”

Linda Mitcham

“I think something like that they should have been a little more cautious,” Mitcham said. “They were lucky no one was hurt.”

Hallahan, the retired priest, said people can find almost anything they want in the Bible, including a lesson related to Wall 22.

“You sow wind. You reap whirlwinds, so if you take shortcuts here, there will be a hurricane down there,” Hallahan said. “So it’s probably wise to use the highest quality materials and make the best decision possible.”