Engineers must be blamed for many failed projects including Palmyra

- Charles Ceres

When infrastructure projects like the one for the monument base at Palmyra fail, it is the engineers who should take the blame and not the government, contractor or procuring agency, according to veteran geotechnical engineer, Charles Ceres.

“The person who is supposed to hold the brunt of the blame is the engineer responsible for the design,” Ceres told Stabroek News in an interview yesterday.

“What we have to look at is the quality of engineering services that has been provided to the people of Guyana. Too often people see engineering failures as failing of the contractor but in all instances after evaluations you find that the contractors did what was designed. So this attitude of trying to apportion blame to the contractor is false,” he added.

Charles Ceres

His views were expressed in wake of the trading of blame between government and former Minister of Culture, Dr Frank Anthony, on who was responsible for the bungled work on the Palmyra, Berbice Monument Base.

The base for the US$150,000 bronze sculpture that was gifted by the Government of India embarrassingly crumbled in late April, while works were ongoing. It was said to be 85% complete at the time of the collapse.

Since then, the project has come under close scrutiny. While most opined that the cause of the collapse was  substandard work, questions were also raised about the awarding of the $42 million contract for the construction to Linden-based company, Alternative Contracting Enterprise (ACE).

Dr Anthony has produced documents and a construction design plan done by Innovative Engineering Consultancy Services whose address is listed on the plan as 51 Second Street Albertown, Georgetown. He said that was the plan his government would have followed and that the present design was varied from this.

Government last week said that a design review, including geotechnical surveys, is underway and that preliminary information suggests that a “flawed” construction method resulted in the collapse of the base for the structure.

According to the preliminary findings that were released by government a design report was not done and geotechnical surveys to determine soil properties were also bypassed. This was because the geotechnical studies were not budgeted for and while assumptions were made for the soil data the supervisory consultant who revised the project did so without adequate engineering analysis.

Stabroek News was told by sources close to the project that government will not move forward with it until its engineers have analysed where the problem lay and how best it can be remedied.

Questions have been raised as to why the APNU+AFC government proceeded with the project in the first place without ensuring that all of the requisite procedures had been followed.


Ceres said the issue was being politicised instead of being dealt with at the core; which was that the engineer failed in his duties and should be held accountable.

“The failure at Palmyra has to be taken in perspective. If you examine the history of Guyana, there has been a history of numerous engineering failures. For example the Anna Regina Sea Defence, the Mon Repos Sea Defence, the Charity Wharf also failed, the Joseph Mercy Hospital project which resulted in the underpinning of sunken foundation, the Hope Bridge approach, the stelling at Supenaam and you can go on and on.

“In the case of Palmyra, I observed that the consulting engineer approached for some work to be done and it was disregarded. Any engineer, anywhere else in the world, will not move forward with the project if they ask for information and that information is not provided.  So he has failed to exercise due diligence and the standard of care. Him saying he asked for this study and because of money it was not granted is foolishness”, he added.

He blasted the monument design engineer saying that he should not have waited until the project collapsed to say that all the testing he needed to complete the plan wasn’t done.

“I have been in situations where people came to me and said they wanted me to do certain works for them but I refused, telling them ‘I do not have enough information so I can’t move ahead with what you want me to do’. Why move ahead and you don’t have everything you needed to complete your design?” he questioned

“These so called engineers say that the panacea is a geotechnical investigation but none of them can say to you if it is a global or local failure that occurred there because none of them know. Ask them if it was a global or localized failure at that site. They do not even understand the aspect of it so why go do a geo tech investigation? Having no geo tech work before doesn’t advance a call for geo tech works. What was the scope? There are different scopes. Same thing with City Council, when they are looking at buildings they send people to do a soil test. ‘Go do a soil test’ but there are 14 pages of different types of soil tests. Which one are they asking for? What are they looking for? They themselves don’t know. Do they have any reason to go get one? Have they established the reason for the failure? All they are saying is they did not have the geo tech investigation. I want you to ask them what difference it would have made if they had that geotech info,” he added.

And on the matter where government said that the construction methodology also contributed to the collapse, Ceres believes that it concretises his views that the contractor should not be held liable since it was yet again the engineer who would have directed on the methodology to be used.

“The construction methodology was based on what the designer said. Now understand that has nothing to do with geo technical engineering…” the engineer stressed.

‘Hold them to task’

He adverted to several projects which over the years have needed hundreds of millions of dollars  in rehabilitation saying that if from the onset the engineers are held to task by governments and procuring entities they would not have had a Palmyra.

The Hope Canal Bridge which has seen the approach settling thus shifting away from the structure was referenced by Ceres who said that local engineers continue to get away with slipshod work.

“The contractor notified of the problem beforehand and what happened? You have an engineer that said they ‘designed it so you do not worry about that, you build to specification’. Now there is settling…The reality is when people are appropriating blame to contractors it is wrong because a contractor can only do what an engineer designs and he can only build something after the engineer has approved it. If a designer has done something and the contractor has built what he has designed and then an engineer has to approve the works and sign off, why is it that people are faulting the contractors?” Ceres questioned.

“As a contractor you are not supposed to question the design and work. This goes anywhere in the world. The only time you get involved in a design process is when you EPC (Engineering, Procurement and Construction) . That is when you are involved with designing itself. You are then mandated. There is nothing in Guyana mandating contractors to get involved with design. Why are you then paying these engineers all this money? That is their work,” he added.

 ‘GAPE’s fault’

The Guyana Association for Professional Engineers (GAPE) came in for their fair share of blasting from Ceres as he stressed that body falls short of its mandate in safeguarding the interest of the public by ensuring proper engineering practices, promoting the observance of high ethical standards and advancing the science of the profession among others.

“The reality is that the people who should be faulted most of all is GAPE. I don’t think they practice appropriate standards of care for engineers. I wouldn’t want to be a member of an organisation who do not hold their members’ feet to the fire. These things continue to happen and the sad thing is the people who continue to pay for it are the taxpayers”, Ceres said.

Clear Conceptualisation’

On moving forward, Ceres said that policy makers and procuring entities have to demand from engineers on capital projects clear conceptualisation and definition of their work.

“If you define the problem then you can solve the problem. Everything starts with problem definition. With Palmyra any engineer worth his salt would have sat down and he will conceptualise what are the issues to building an engineering, sound structure. On that basis he will make a determination of what he needs to know. Then he will decide if he needs a geo tech a hydrological study, structural engineering study done then he will put the components together. That doesn’t seem to happen in Guyana”, he lamented.


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