Monday, August 20, 2001

Fallout continues in Rubio Canyon

Responsibility for disaster still being debated

By Becky Oskin
Staff Writer

ALTADENA -- Rubio Canon Land and Water Association -- a tiny nonprofit that has provided cheap water to parts of Altadena for 115 years -- started a federally funded project to replace a damaged water pipeline in April 1998.

When the project ended nine months later, Rubio Canyon was filled with tons of granite rocks, leaving what some have called an environmental disaster in the Angeles National Forest that should never have been allowed to happen.

The water company's goal was to stabilize a landslide that knocked out a water pipe during the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, but construction was plagued from the start.

Contractors couldn't safely enter the rugged canyon until April because of the El Nino winter rains. Once they did make it, it became clear the $485,000 project would be much more difficult and dangerous than anyone had predicted.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had approved a project to replace 200 feet of pipe and cut an 80-foot-long bench, 2 feet wide and high. The new pipe would nestle in the heel of the bench, protected from future landslides.

However, when construction was complete, Rubio Water's contractors had cut a 342-foot-long bench, 200 feet tall at its highest point. They had also left about 20,000 cubic yards of debris in the canyon, burying three waterfalls and possibly impacting three more. A historic structure associated with the Mount Lowe Railway -- listed on the National Register of Historic Places -- also disappeared under the tons of granite.

Three years later, no one has agreed who should spend the millions of dollars needed to restore the canyon and no one has agreed who is at fault.

Construction nightmare
Because of ongoing lawsuits, few involved in the Rubio Canyon project are willing to talk about what happened during construction. Much of the following has been pieced together from public records and court documents.

In early 1998, Rubio Water contracted Zaich Construction of Northridge for the pipe-replacement project, although another company took on the dangerous Rubio Canyon landslide.

Zaich subcontracted Sylmar-based Tite Enterprises, a small company whose motto is "Where track and tire cannot go."

Daily construction in the canyon started with a helicopter trip into the work site -- it landed on a narrow ledge just north of the landslide, blades uncomfortably close to the canyon walls.

In April, the most essential construction equipment was delivered in pieces and assembled at the landslide -- a German-built Superhoe. Half backhoe, half spider, the Superhoe has a set of tires in back and two articulated legs in front.

Almost all of the excavation work in Rubio Canyon was done with the Superhoe perched at a precarious angle on the unstable rocks, unsecured by rope or chain.

Led by Ernie Tite himself, excavation started about 200 feet above the bench site, the Superhoe hammering or pushing out loose rock and letting it fall into the canyon.

But work on the steep hillside was difficult. The helicopter couldn't land in the frequent fog and with only one piece of equipment anything from a snapped hydraulic line to a flat tire derailed the project.

In early June, Rubio Water asked FEMA for a time extension, citing "unusual project requirements and breaking of equipment."

By this time, excavation work had already dramatically exceeded the project approved by the Forest Service and FEMA.

Once construction started, it had apparently become clear that much more rock would have to be removed above the bench-cut level for worker safety.

"Like a lot of projects, once you get in the field, things are different than the way they looked," said Jan Fahey, president of Rubio Canon Land and Water Association. "There did have to be some changes in the project because of local conditions that could not have been predicted."

However, the question of who decided to increase the project's scope is not so obvious and may only be answered in court.

Legal morass
Rubio Water accuses Zaich Construction of breach of contract for creating the huge pile of rubble without its consent.

But Zaich's breach of contract suit against Rubio Water, which was filed first, alleges that the company was a knowing and willing party to the change in scope.

However the court rules, it seems no one was closely monitoring work in Rubio Canyon.

Wally Weaver, Rubio Water's superintendent, checked Tite's progress from a bridge at the mouth of Rubio Canyon twice a week. From there it's possible to see the upper part of the landslide, but not the canyon bottom.

Part of the blame lies with Rubio Water for not informing FEMA officials when it became clear the Superhoe would push rock into the canyon, said Alan Manee, who investigated the Rubio Canyon project for the state Office of Emergency Services.

But records show no one from the Forest Service, FEMA or the state OES visited the canyon until the end of July, four months into construction. By that time, Tite Enterprises had shaved about 150 feet off the canyon wall.

Project should have been stopped
The first recorded concern appears in Tite's construction diary, which notes only three days of work the week of July 20, "due to Thursday meetings with Terry Ellis of the U.S. Forest Service re:stopping project."

Ellis, now retired, was the district ranger who approved the project in 1996. He declined to comment on the Rubio Canyon project.

He had the power to shut down Rubio Water's project, but never stopped construction.

"That's where the Forest Service really went wrong." said Glendale attorney Paul Ayers, who is fighting to make someone clean up the debris.

Under the law, Ellis should have stopped the project and held public hearings, preventing further damage, Ayers said.

But FEMA and state OES officials who visited the construction site in August, when the debris pile had already filled much of the canyon, didn't stop the project either.

Yet everyone from Rubio Water to FEMA recognized the serious impact.

At a private Aug. 10 meeting, with everyone involved attending, ideas were floated for dealing with the debris, including spreading the rock farther down the canyon to lower the pile and simply strapping the rock in place to prevent dangerous debris flows.

The meeting resulted in agreement that something must be done about the massive pile of rock filling Rubio Canyon. Rubio Water hired an environmental consultant to evaluate mitigation or cleanup measures.

They also agreed that the project had to finish quickly so cleanup work could begin.

Manee urged Ellis, the district ranger, to permit blasting.

"I needed to get them off the hill because I wanted to concentrate on the mitigation, because we already had an (environmental) issue," Manee said.

No one takes responsibility
Once the meeting was over, however, it appears everyone began covering their tracks.

FEMA officials began backpedaling immediately, Manee said.

Word of the problem had spread to FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Officials there were interested in exploring ways to clean up the pile, or at least make it less hazardous to hikers, Manee said. His opinion seems to be supported by public records.

This put the national office at odds with regional FEMA officials. Treating the debris pile as eligible repair work could make the agency liable for the spiraling project costs and the cost of removing or somehow mitigating the pile.

Despite issuing a blasting permit Aug. 13, Ellis sent a letter revoking the Forest Service's approval for the pipe-replacement project on Sept. 7. Incongruously, he issued another blasting permit in October.

Rubio Water also sent a letter in early September to FEMA, informing officials that "in order to create a sound bench in the rock ... and the removal of the overhanging and unstable rock, it became necessary to begin a cut 200 feet above the new pipe bench."

Later, Rubio Water would tell FEMA that this letter was sent out the day after the company received notice from its contractor of the expanded excavation.

But the construction diary shows that Tite attended the Aug. 10 meeting, where the project was likely discussed in detail.

Despite the maneuvering and letters flying back and forth, by November Tite started laying pipe.

The project ended on Dec. 2. The length of the bench was 342 feet. Two days later Tite moved his equipment out of the canyon and finished the construction diary, writing "Project completed. Thank God!"

The landslide hasn't caused problems for Rubio Water since construction finished -- the bench works exactly as it should, protecting the pipe.

The 342-foot bench is 142 feet longer than the bench FEMA approved and 262 feet longer than the project the Forest Service approved.

At its highest point, the bench stretches 200 feet above the canyon, 100 times higher than what was approved earlier.

And that's the problem.

Debris pile 600 feet long
Back-of-the-envelope calculations by FEMA found only 100 cubic yards of debris would have resulted from a 350-foot-long, 4-foot-high and 4-foot-wide bench. A moderate increase to a 10-foot by 10-foot bench the same length would yield 650 cubic yards of rock.

The pile in Rubio Canyon is anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 cubic yards in size.

The only geologists to estimate its size placed the total amount at less than 20,000 cubic yards, though it's difficult to estimate the pile's depth because there are no detailed records of the canyon's original topography.

An estimated 600 feet in length, 10 feet at its upper end and 100 feet wide at its center, the pile is loose and difficult to climb because of constantly shifting rocks.

Its surface is a steep 35-degree slope, what engineers call the angle of repose -- the steepest angle at which the pile remains stable.

There is a bright note: because the waterfalls spilled over hard rock, it's unlikely they were permanently damaged by the debris pile, a mitigation study by URS Greiner Woodward Clyde reported.

Cleanup, dangers debated
The report says that even if no one can agree on a way to clean up Rubio Canyon, "given enough time and sufficient storm flow, the rock debris will eventually be moved downstream and the waterfalls will be uncovered."

However, as fine-grained sand and sediment sifts its way into the open spaces between larger rocks, the pile could also become a giant dam. With the right set of conditions, unlikely as they may be, there's a possibility the pile could turn into a giant, devastating debris flow that might destroy homes and a bridge at the foot of Rubio Canyon.

The debris drew enough concern to become an issue in the local congressional race in 2000, with both candidates promising to find money for the Forest Service to evaluate cleanup methods.

In October 2000, former Congressman James Rogan, R-Pasadena, successfully pushed through a $360,000 appropriation for a Forest Service study.

The Forest Service hired a consultant last month, and the first public meeting on restoring the canyon is scheduled for Aug. 27.

Whether by nature's hand or man's, with time or with money, Rubio Canyon's waterfalls will return.

-- Becky Oskin can be reached at (626) 578-6300, Ext. 4451, or at

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