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Troubling photos spark Ministry of Transportation inspections of Sea to Sky retaining walls, creating new concerns over Kiewit construction.

The Ministry of Transportation is investigating the condition of at least three MSE ( Mechanically Stabilized Earth) retaining walls along the Sea to Sky Highway, according to sources close to the project.

This action finally comes after specific Ministry employee’s received the photos shown below – in February of this year – that show clear flaws, deficiencies and structural concerns that sources indicate out-of-spec walls. Major defects show large open gaps in the concrete panels, water seepage behind walls, walls that are “out of batter” ( leaning the wrong way) and possible vertical movement of the walls. *terminology link found here for reference.

In some areas, the gaps are so wide that the tongue and groove elements are no longer meshed and it is possible to reach in and feel the geotextile cloth behind. While the photos were taken earlier this year in a cold snap, follow-up visits during rainy weather have shown very little water coming out of installed drainage pipes installed for such purpose, and a build up of water behind the wall with seepage from under the wall in other areas.

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In speaking with several industry sources who have assisted me on prior MOT project stories ( who would only speak off the record fearing reprisals or backlash in the industry), the photos are concerning for two reasons.

First, these type of MSE retaining walls should be built to spec to last for approximately 70 years. That these walls are showing sign of defects within years of construction is not acceptable,nor is it standard. Sources indicate this is above and beyond what would be normal settlement.

Water and faulty construction are two major reasons behind MSE retaining wall failures.

Water on its own, not properly directed via drainage conduits to exit or bypass the wall in specific areas, can undermine the backfill behind a wall, leading to serious erosion and the potential for wall failures. Water can cause irreparable damage to retaining walls if not controlled and directed and can have catastrophic consequences, as this engineering publication details :

When water flows
About 90 percent of soil problems are really water problems. Most retaining wall failures occur during heavy rainstorms. Recently, a 43-foot-tall “big block” MSE wall failed during a heavy rain just eight months after it was built, launching 2,400-pound blocks more than 50 feet when the wall popped. This wall failed during a storm, even though it had survived earlier, heavier rains. It appears that the earlier storms caused the wall’s drains to clog, and therefore this subsequent storm contributed to the failure.”

Water is also incredibly destructive in the winter freeze/thaw cycle – winter freezing in this case will continue to damage these walls, pushing the panels further apart because as water freezes, it expands with a tremendous force. Follow that up with typical heavy rains and spring melt run-off and it doesn’t take an engineer to tell you there could be a big problem.

This is why the drainage systems in the walls are so important,and why it needs to be determined why some of the drains on these walls are not working. Sources indicate the backfill on some of these walls may have been over-compacted by over-loaded rock trucks used to bring the fill on site. If the drainage system was damaged or crushed by too much weight, or improperly engineered, the drainage issues will continue, as will costly damage.

The second issue on these walls is one of accountability.

With all the ” Value for Money” touted by Partnerships BC on the Sea to Sky highway improvement project, where is the value in a retaining wall that allegedly doesn’t meet the standards for a 70 year life? Who inspected this wall and signed off on it? There is no monitoring equipment on the wall, how often are these walls inspected? Who did the quality control? At this point, the question of who would be liable at this point comes into play as the Province of BC signed off on the final project.

This isn’t the first retaining wall Kiewit has had issues with locally.

In 2011, Kiewit had to tear down and rebuild parts of a retaining wall that was found to be ” structurally unfit” along Lougheed Hwy, on the Port Mann Highway One project. According to Transportation Investment Corporation – the crown corporation overseeing the project- Kiewit was to cover the entire cost of the repairs.

Kiewit has also been involved in litigation in the U.S. following the massive failure of one retaining wall, that lead to the tear down and replacement of another 14 retaining walls along the Caltrans 405 Freeway project in California.

” Kiewit, SSL, as well as the project’s designer, global firm HNTB, are in all court, suing one another. In court documents, Kiewit alleges the wall system was “deficient and defective.” SSL has stated the “drain design and installation were inadequate” at the site where the wall collapsed, according to the Caltrans report.”

Internal ministry sources indicate Transportation Minister Todd Stone is aware of this issue and has also seen these photos.

While sources indicate that the retaining walls shown in these photos are not likely to suffer a catastrophic failure, the photos are concerning because in some areas below the retaining walls, there are homes. There is no crash wall below these retaining walls either, to prevent a vehicle that might go over the edge from crashing completely down the slopes below. There is no guarantee what would happen in an earthquake, or following heavy rains and runoff, which is why these issues need to be addressed.

Considering there are 219 MSE retaining walls on this project, finding signs like this in just three walls easily accessible, raises questions to the status of all the walls, in particular because of the very tight construction deadlines on this project and Kiewits history.

After all, since we are all paying for this highway everytime someone travels it, via the ‘ shadow toll’ portion of the payment to the concessionaire, I think the public is entitled to a little more than lip service on this one.

**Follow up post here:


    • Kiewit’s track record in the province is not without examination,but I do stress my sources indicate the walls in the photos are not likely to suffer a catastrophic failure, of course one can’t anticipate any roadways response to a large seismic event completely.

      The concern is that how is it that these issues occurred in the first place, and why are they left like this today?


    • Politicians are always there for the ribbon-cutting, but the same ones who were in the photo-ops are usually long gone into the private sector once the project fails… BTW, where is Kevin Falcon now?


  1. Could the retaining wall that is failing be the TEST SECTION?

    Altered design cuts cost on upgrade to Sea-to-Sky Highway
    Author: Inwood, Damian, The Province

    Lessons learned on a one-kilometre construction test section on the Sea-to-Sky Highway will result in design changes and “substantial savings” on part of the highway upgrade.

    “We had originally designed a lot of split grades,” said project director Peter Milburn. “Through better use of retaining walls and rock stabilization, they’ve been able to eliminate some very expensive median retaining walls and drainage features and put most of it on grade SNIP

    Milburn said the $11-million test section, is between Strip Creek and Montezambert Creek


  2. But P3 solves every problem in every situation – didn’t you know that? The market forces, the invisible hand, the ability to sue after things go wrong, the enormous fee potential for consulting engineers and lawyers …


  3. on time and on budget just cut corners.on theSFPR they say it was on time and budget but the cut out at least 2 overpasses 1 at nordell and another at 80th the land was preloaded but no overpass the hills of sand are still there but they have lights instead of overpass


    • “Our problem is we built most of the facilities in the ’60s and ’70s, built them in a hurry,” says McGill University’s Saeed Mirza, an expert on concrete infrastructure. “The result is that the quality control was not there.” The problem boils down to the ill-advised design choices and poor-quality concrete that were used in the rush to build up Montreal ahead of Expo ’67 and the 1976 Olympics”

      Built them in a hurry…. quality control not there…. hmmm…. makes me wonder what all this ” On time, On budget” tag line of the BC Liberals is going to result in 20 years down the road here in BC, from the projects built during Campbell and Falcon’s haydays in the legislature.

      Retaining walls tend to be problematic for many reasons, detailed very well in this link:

      Poor communication between different team members, inconsistent or a lack of quality control, combined with pressures of meeting highly lucrative performance deadlines can lead to a plethora of issues. If a retaining wall isn’t built perfectly from the foundation or base,troubles start, and over compaction from the top can compound those issues. I will be looking forward to seeing what the ministry’s inspections show… if they decide to share that info with the general public


      • Laila, Laila… are you so naïve to think the ministry’s inspection reports will be shared with the general public if they even confirm 10% of your findings?


        • LOl.. not at all. This isn’t the first tangle I’ve had with the MOT by far. Even when faced with internal leaked documents speaking about the shadow toll on the sea to sky, and the ad talking about the broken traffic counters, they still denied the existence of all of it.

          BTW, like your pen name 😀


  4. And Kiewit is rebuilding/resurfacing the Cape Horn Junction East of School House were Hwy 1, United Blvd, The MHB and Lougheed all merge. The ramp hasn’t been open for a year and it needs a total rebuild?


  5. Sure wish you hadn’t brought this attention to the defects of the highway because there’s a slight glitch in the Government website at which has a link to YouTube titled: TranBC – Videos about the Sea-to-Sky Highway which links to:

    BC 99 North, Sea-to-Sky Highway AND Red Bull Signature Series, AND Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon (“…the last person you want to be with …”) AND Ben Hur AND Wild Women of Wongo


  6. This is very serious stuff Laila. What has the MOT said in response. If this doesn’t make the 6 o’clock news, taxpayers in this province will have a lot to worry about.
    There is no amount of spin that will mollify this.
    These structures are not supposed to move.
    They are supposed to hold back all the stuff that does move.
    This is not good for anybody.


  7. I doubt there will be any rush to enlighten the public as to what is actually going on. No doubt the PAB and MOT will try and blow it off as being normal. Unfortunately the BC Lie-berals are anything but normal.
    All we need is one accident due to wall failure and the government will be having kittens !
    Another monumental fuster-cluck by the BC government of the day.
    I fear what the future will bring – especially if we have a few more very cold (hard) winters.


    • Yes,SNC Lavalin was indeed.

      This is the MOT’s official response, something the residents who live below some of these walls should be asking for proof on – they say the issues are all merely’cosmetic’

      VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – The new Sea to Sky Highway is only about five years old, but already there are questions being raised about part of its structural integrity.

      Photos taken by people in the road building industry and sent to blogger and columnist Laila Yuile show separation between big concrete blocks that are used to form the retaining walls.

      “In some cases it’s a matter of inches. You’re able to reach in. In some of the photos you can see people using a ruler to put in between them. Either you can see sand coming out between the bricks, or there’s water leaching,” says Yuile.

      The Ministry of Transportation says it has done its own investigation, and insists the issue is a cosmetic one, not affecting the structural integrity of the walls. It adds the walls are inspected annually.

      But there have been problems elsewhere: in 2011, a retaining wall on a highway near Kelowna collapsed, and one as part of the new Cape Horn Interchange had to be replaced.

      “These walls are generally built to last 70 years, and we’re seeing failures within a very short time,” Yuile tells News1130.

      All of the walls are built by Kiewit & Sons, and in the past the company has been held responsible for the financial burden of repairs.

      Herein lies the issue.

      These walls were built in 2009. It’s 2014 now. Let’s just go with the ministry of transportations line right now that these are just ‘cosmetic’ issues…. would, or should a well built wall,be showing signs of such cosmetic distress at this early juncture? It is supposed to be built to last 70 years, all components, not just the ‘cosmetic’ ones. And frankly, in a retaining wall,gaps of this size, in combination with drains that aren’t working, are anything but cosmetic.


  8. so if these P3 “partnerships” can’t build a decent highway, which is costing this province an arm and a leg and a school and hospital, how can the government be depend upon this type of organization to build decent hospitals.


  9. Keiwit employees (truck drivers) were told to speed it up when driving safely with those big double dump trucks..more loads – faster completion. Friend refused -too dangerous. Others all complied. Bonuses to employees whenever targets met. Suspect this flowed all the way to the top. There were accidents due to overwork – won’t be specific – may id friend. Might be interesting to see records? Contracting out was done toward end?? VERY UNSAFE TANDEM DRIVERS ON ROAD ! Accidents/complaints??


  10. If the retaining walls need replacing or fixing it won’t be a problem as the contractor who put them in is collecting shadow tolls on the Sea to Sky highway. There is plenty of money to fix them right as the tolls will be flowing to them for a couple more decades.


  11. oh it really doesn’t matter. it is will only be human beings being killed and that just doesn’t matter in B.C. Do try to remember this is a government which has the highest child poverty rate in canada and is frequently ciritizised for its failure to provide adequately for the children in care. What have they done? Nothing. What will be done in this case? nothing. It is only human life which will be the casualty. Christy crunch will stand in front of the press and try to look serious, the MSM will show a few pictures of blood and gore. There will be a few human interest stories showing relatives crying and then it will be forgotten in another week. welcome to the real world of capitalism. What is important is that as many of our tax dollars go into the pockets of big business and stay there. What is important is the politicians get their smiling faces in the news and what is important is the provincial tax dollars flow to the MSM. Now the rest of us ought to go to sleep. If a few dozen citizens or even a few hundred are killed or maimed, it doesn’t matter. el gordo and christy’s “connections” got the contracts and they are all happy. Human life in this province is cheap.


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