Portland District dive office oversees critical inspections of Army piers in California

Article and photos by Rick Benoit,
Office of Dive/ROV Operations and Safety

Through four cross-country mobilizations to MOTCO, the seven-person dive team utilized a surface-supplied SCUBA methodology to dive 95 times within nine weeks — using 190 tanks of air to perform 285 hours of underwater work.

Having played a supporting but historically critical role during every armed conflict since World War II, piers at the Army’s Military Ocean Terminal, Concord, Calif. are receiving some long-overdue attention from the country it has served since 1942.

If all goes according to plan – a multi-million dollar construction and rehabilitation project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – work at MOTCO and its system of three primary piers will begin in 2016.

Inspections to document structural damage and estimate repairs to MOTCO’s piers were completed by the Corps’ Engineering and Research Development Center in 2011 and2012. More dive inspections are scheduled for September 2013, and will be repeated every two years until pier modernization is complete.

The Portland District Office of Dive/ROV Operations and Safety led the Corps’ underwater execution of MOTCO’s pier inspections. “This was a massive undertaking requiring a series of complex dives in bad weather with cold, fast-moving water and poor visibility,” said Todd Manny, Portland District’s deputy dive coordinator. “But it had to be done as divers and the dive team needed to know about structural dangers and the possible existence of unexploded ordinance below the underwater mud line.”

The limited operational status of MOTCO’s waterfront warship-loading structures located on Suisun Bay has national security implications – it’s from this facility that the U.S. Army, thru its 834thTransportation Battalion, ships about 25 percent of the Nation’s ammunition and ordinance needs.

“Previous inspections found Pier No. 2, which has been inoperable for five years, structurally inadequate to handle its missions due to load restrictions and general condition of decay,” said ERDC engineer Kevin Haskins, who is project manager for the MOTCO pier inspection. “Pier No.3 is operational but there are “red flags” about its functionality, life expectancy and structural capacity. Pier No. 4 has load restrictions and is also in need of repair.”

An engineering and diving team from KCI Technologies and Pennoni Associates, under contract with USACE, executed the $350,000MOTCO pier inspections. The seven-person dive team mobilized four times from the east coast to MOTCO and followed a surface-supplied SCUBA methodology to facilitate nearly nine weeks of diving.

“Besides the usual physical and environmental difficulties, such as low visibility, cold water, fluctuating currents and tides, an extremely challenging aspect of this dive mission was onsite record-keeping as well tracking diver location within the “underwater forest” of nearly 16,000 pier pilings,” said dive supervisor Ikaika Kincaid, a senior engineer and dive manager with KCI. “In spite of these challenges, our exceptional team kept everything on-track – resulting in a safe and efficient inspection and allowing us to provide MOTCO, SDDC and the Corps with precise and accurate findings.”

KCI divers worked 12-hourdays performing a mix of Level I, II, and III non-destructive testing techniques to inspect the four piers – which totaled about 2.8miles of timber and concrete piles, submerged in depths of up to 50 feet underwater.

“The timber portions of MOTCO’s piers were built in the 1940s and are very similar to the technology of piers, wharves and docks built in the late 1800s,” said KCI senior structural engineer John Hudacek, who also served as the company’s MOTCO project manager. “Essentially, they are 19th-centurystyle structures supporting 21stcentury
critical military operations. It was imperative that we provide precise information to MOTCO and SDDC about deteriorating pier conditions along with our recommendations for mission-required repair planning.”

As part of the inspection’s review and follow-up, SDDC urgently requested the Corps, KCI and Pennoni expedite a Level III underwater inspection of Pier No. 3 – the only operational waterfront structure to on load and off load munitions at MOTCO. This mission, utilized advanced techniques (beyond the visual and tactile surveys of Level I and I inspections) to determine structural damage to pier timbers caused by marine boring worms and their impact on the pier’s loading capacity and stability.

Two giant gantry cranes stand in wait at Military Ocean Terminal, Concord, Calif., Pier 3, the U.S. Army’s primary West Coast distribution point for ordinance and ammunition.

In less than two weeks, the KCI dive team extracted nearly 300timber samples for wood experts who examined and determined wood-preserving creosote levels as well as the amount of decay and marine borer damage.

“Findings from the inspection of Pier No. 3 were eye-opening for the installation and SDDC,” said Haskins. “But their desire to further investigate the structural degradation of the piers probably prevented a catastrophe.

“The over-arching goal of the IMCOM program is to find and correct deficiencies before there is failure,” continued Haskins. “Our work at MOTCO is an example where going the extra mile and taking an extra step programmatically was, inherently, a good thing.

”MOTCO Pier No. 1is also the site of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument built to honor320 Navy and Navy civilian killed July 17, 1944, by a massive explosion while loading ships with ammunition for use in the Pacific Theater.

“Seeing the remains of Pier No. 1every day and the National Memorial dedicated to the mostly African-American workers who died in that explosion was very sobering,” said Kincaid. “It reminded me, daily, that safety can never be overlooked. No matter how much of a “hassle” safety precautions may sometimes seem, those safety procedures are in place for a reason; they save lives.”