The leader of an independent team of researchers investigating the New Orleans levee failures has filed an ethics complaint with the American Society of Civil Engineers, claiming executives of that trade organization and the Army Corps of Engineers have systematically attempted to undermine his group’s investigation.
University of California-Berkeley civil engineering Professor Raymond Seed led a group whose conclusions at times contrasted sharply with those of corps-sponsored investigations. In his 42-page letter, sent Oct. 30 to the former president of the ASCE, Seed charged that the corps-sponsored probe produced flawed results that absolved the corps of its full measure of blame — and, more important, led to mistakes in the rebuilding of levees and walls in the area.
Immediately after the flood, the corps requested that ASCE appoint an “external review panel” to provide expert advice to the corps-sponsored investigators, the Interagency Performance Evaluation Task Force, or IPET. That group ultimately produced research now being used to create new levee designs and safety standards.
Seed, echoing other critics, blasted the cozy relationship between the corps and ASCE officials in attempting to control the results of the Katrina investigations. He called the corps’ role in financing the ASCE investigation — at a cost of about $2 million — a conflict of interest. He further alleges a series of attempts by the corps and the ASCE to block independent teams from gathering key evidence from the sites of levee failures, and from speaking publicly about their findings, which often have differed substantially from those of the corps-sponsored IPET investigators.
The relationship between ASCE and the corps — which controls a large portion of civil works construction projects in the country — has always been close, and Seed alleges the corps has used the leverage to quash differing viewpoints about the levee failures. The ASCE represents more than 140,000 engineers worldwide — including many working for the corps, directly or on contract.
ASCE first came under fire after issuing a news release in June that seemed to minimize the responsibility of the corps for the failure of the levee system during Hurricane Katrina. The organization said the city would have flooded badly even if the levees had not breached.