By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Associate engineer quit over ‘ignored’ safety concerns
• City claims Austin was outside his area of expertise
Service Road bridge
Andy Austin said his concerns about the 100-year-old Service Road bridge over the TID canal were not treated seriously so he quit. - photo by Jeff Benziger

A structural engineer said he resigned from his position with the city of Ceres Engineering Division because his concerns about possible deficiencies of city projects were being ignored.

“I quit in disgust because I couldn’t get anything done,” said Andy Austin, who has a master’s degree in Structural Civil Engineering. The former associate engineer alleged that the city has failed to do proper calculations to see if projects engineered in-house meet California Building Code standards.

He cited concerns about the concrete platforms built for water filtration tanks next to various city wells.

“When you apply to put your own building in, they send it over to the county to have them inspect for California Building Code compliance but they don’t do that for your own structures,” claimed Austin. “So, none of their structures are built to code.”

Interim City Manager Alex Terrazas, however, claimed that Austin “raised concerns about a handful of City properties and infrastructure, despite those being outside of his realm of expertise and outside of his assignment.”

The city installed GAC (granulated active carbon) filtration tanks next to some wells to meet water quality standards for treatment of TCP. Austin claims that the slabs on which the tanks sit were not built thick enough nor were the right size and material of anchor bolts used. Specifically he noted that he pads on which the tanks sit for wells 38, 39 and 40 are 18 inches thick when they should be 24 inches. He also said that according to specs from Calgon, the manufacturer of the GAC tanks, the eight-inch bolts are inadequate.

Since the wells 38, 39, and 40 all need to be running for fire suppression, Austin said they are in a higher risk category and require greater seismic loads that were not used by the engineers designing the project.

While Stanislaus County has been relatively safe from earthquakes, Austin said he’s worried that major seismic activity could cause the GAC tanks to fail and thus interrupt water flow at a time when water supply would be critical for fire suppression and residential use. Austin claims city officials paid no heed to his call to investigate to see how much of a problem the slabs would pose should a big quake hit.

“Everybody brushed it under the rug, including (City Manager) Tom (Westbrook),” said Austin. Westbrook has since left the city for the city of Red Bluff.

Austin said City Engineer Daniel Padilla “didn’t know anything about structural civil engineering at all” and that “he didn’t listen to me.”

Austin had reported the issue to Human Resources through his union, and Padilla wrote him up for “insubordination” and in April sent him home for two months.

“I sat at home for eight weeks doing nothing,” said Austin.

The Courier reached out to Padilla for comment but he declined, referring questions to the Human Resources Department which also declined to comment.

Austin insists that nobody did the calculations “on how much force those eight-inch bolts can actually hold and will it be enough for the next five years until they get more tanks online and then they don’t have to worry about these?”

He added that once the city goes on surface water project in 2023, the city should have enough water for fire suppression efforts following a catastrophic event.

“If they didn’t survive an earthquake then we wouldn’t have enough water to fight fires,” said Austin.

Austin said he doesn’t necessarily believe that the GAC foundations need to be replaced, he said “they do need to be analyzed to see if they need to be replaced or if they need other types of fixes there.”

A registered structural engineer named John F. Bradley in Atascadero confirmed Austin’s conclusion that the footings were “under-designed and may not be able to meet 2019 CBC anchorage design requirements.”

Terrazas said that Bradley determined that the anchors and foundations for the tanks are sufficient and appropriate for the operating conditions and that “the tanks are designed and installed to withstand seismic activity and meet code requirements.”

Terrazas said that Bradley is of the opinion that the tanks can be retrofitted to ensure even greater security in case of an earthquake but expressed no urgency to the city about completing such a retrofit.

“The city is cognizant of its obligation to continuously reevaluate such tanks and other items of infrastructure to ensure compliance with multiple safety, legal and regulatory obligations, and discussions related to upgrading such items to comply with code and general safety requirements are always ongoing amongst department heads and city management,” wrote Terrazas.

Austin also reported “a lot of other problems,” such as the bridge on Service Road that spans the TID Ceres Main Canal at Moore Road. When Austin returned to work after Padilla left the city of Ceres for Menifee, Calif., he discovered that Caltrans had downgraded the 1921 bridge for structural integrity. He claims that Public Works Director Jeremy Damas told him “don’t work on that because I don’t know who’s paying for insurance.” Austin claims he doesn’t know what Damas meant “because if you own it and it fails you’re going to be paying somebody in a court case.”

Austin said that Caltrans forwarded Padilla their inspection of the bridge and that Austin was asked to review it when he had the time, adding that it wasn’t important.

Austin said it’s important that the city focus on the bridge, claiming that concrete bridges are susceptible to soffit spalling on the underside because bars rust and expand, pushing away concrete.

“We don’t know how long something like that is going to last and it needs to be very carefully monitored,” said Austin.

The old bridge can no longer support vehicle load in excess of 72,091 pounds, or 36.05 tons. The new weight limit means the canal cannot support the Ceres Fire Department’s large Quint engine since it weighs 43.5 tons.

Terrazas said “Austin reported a concern that he had about a bridge in the city which spans a TID canal, despite this inquiry being outside of his realm of expertise and outside of his assignment.  Mr. Austin made no effort to determine within whose jurisdiction (city, county, Turlock Irrigation District) the bridge was within or who was truly responsible for addressing any engineering concerns.”

Terrazas said Damas directed Austin to end his inquiries “until those entities could confer about overall liability issues. Mr. Austin disregarded those directives multiple times after being told that management was looking into the issues.”

Terrazas said the management of the Public Works Department is continuing to review and evaluate the potential problem, pledging that the city will “address the matter if the concerns are determined to be the city’s responsibility.”

However on Nov. 1 Damas told the Courier that he has not read the Caltrans document and the city still doesn’t know who is responsible for the bridge. He claimed that if Caltrans ordered the test, then the state is responsible for the bridge.

Austin claims that Caltrans does inspections for structural stability of all bridges every four years.

But apparently the city still does not know which agency is responsible for the bridge fixes or replacement.

“There’s just a lot of unanswered questions with that and I’ve honestly never picked it back up,” said Damas.