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State Agency to Review Three Subway Engineers

October 29, 1994|DAVID WILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The state government board that is responsible for regulating California engineers has begun a review of transit engineers who approved the substitution of wooden wedges for metal bracing in Los Angeles subway tunnels, according to board executives.

"I have asked our executive officer to look into this," said Sharon Jasek Reid, president of the California Board of Registration for Professional Engineers and Land Surveyors.

Reid said the review is in response to a Times report this week that two engineering officials who approved the substitution of the wooden wedges in 12 miles of subway tunnels are not licensed to practice by the state.

Earlier this month, an independent engineering firm retained by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority concluded that substitution of the wedges was "inappropriate." The wedges failed in tunnels along Hollywood Boulevard in August--and engineering reports have concluded that the failures contributed to surface sinkages of up to nine inches.

The state not only plans to determine whether the two engineering officials required a license, but also to examine the competence of the work by a third engineer, according to state engineering board Executive Officer Harold L. Turner.

That work was performed two years ago by a licensed engineer retained by Shea-Kiewit-Kenny, the contractor who requested and was granted permission to use wooden wedges.

The engineer defended his work in an interview on Friday and said that transit engineers who approved the wedges did not question him about his structural assumptions in advance of their decision.

Turner said that, as a first step of what he expects could be a two-month-long inquiry, the state board is requesting information from the MTA. "What was in the article causes us to have some concerns," Turner said.

The substitution of the wooden wedges was approved in September, 1992, by two engineering officials, Timothy P. Smirnoff and Stephen J. Navin.

Smirnoff, who has declined to comment, is employed by the MTA's design-engineering group, headed by the firm of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

Smirnoff is the subway project's "manager, tunnel engineering" and is "responsible for technical support on underground engineering," according to an MTA directory. He is licensed, in good standing, in the state of New York.

A representative of Parsons Brinckerhoff said Friday that the firm would cooperate with the state board. The representative, Joan Early, said in a written statement that Smirnoff consulted "appropriate staff" before approving the substitution.

Navin, who left the subway project early this year, worked as a "resident engineer" for the MTA's construction-management firm, Parsons-Dillingham. A spokesman for Parsons-Dillingham said Friday that Navin deferred to Smirnoff's group and therefore did not need a state engineering license.

"Only (Smirnoff's group) was authorized to review and approve the wooden wedge request," said Parsons-Dillingham spokesman Ron Wildermuth, adding that Navin's role was to "monitor the timelines of the process and approve the transmittal of (Smirnoff's) decision to the contractor."

Turner, of the engineering board, said he wants to examine three issues related to the substitution of the wedges:

* Whether the approval made by Smirnoff or Navin, who are not licensed in California, meets the law's definition of civil engineering. "We need some specifics as to what Smirnoff and Navin did in their work," Turner said. Records show that Smirnoff signed approval of the substitution on Sept. 11, 1992, and Navin did so on Sept. 17, 1992.

The representative who commented on Smirnoff's behalf said one of the engineering colleagues Smirnoff consulted regarding the wedges was his supervisor, K. N. Murthy, who is licensed by the state. Murthy did not sign the documents approving the substitution.

* Whether Smirnoff's identification of himself as a "P.E.," short for "professional engineer," violated a provision of law which forbids people unlicensed in the state "to in any manner use the title 'professional engineer.' "

Smirnoff was identified as a professional engineer when he signed an MTA Tunnel Review Board report, dated Aug. 31, regarding the sinkages in Hollywood.

Turner said that if officials conclude that either Smirnoff or Navin may have practiced what the law defines as civil engineering, the state board would refer the matter for misdemeanor prosecution to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. The referral would be the only recourse, Turner said, because the board does not have jurisdiction to otherwise penalize engineers who are unlicensed.

* Whether the engineer retained by Shea-Kiewit-Kenny acted competently. That engineer, Andrew R. Nasser of Pasadena, is licensed by the state to practice civil and structural engineering. The state board may impose penalties ranging from a letter of reproof to revocation of license.

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