State engineering board checking Irving's oversight of Cowboys practice facility

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by BY BRANDON FORMBY and BROOKS EGERTON / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 12:15 PM

The Texas Board of Professional Engineers is investigating the city of Irving over issues related to the Dallas Cowboys practice facility that collapsed, permanently paralyzing one man and injuring 11 others.

Lance Kinney, a spokesman for the engineering board, declined Thursday to elaborate on the scope of the inquiry. Irving officials said they had no comment.

The city earlier this week said it has no record of the engineer who signed off on the project's design. The city also said it does not have the building's blueprints or specifications on file, even though state officials said Thursday that those documents should be kept for the life of the building.

Texas requires officials who enforce engineering-related laws to accept planning documents only if they bear an engineer's seal. Violations are punishable by up to a year in jail.

The engineering board's investigators also are researching whether they could take action against facility builder Summit Structures and its parent company. The firms lacked a required state license when they designed and built the Cowboys facility.

Meanwhile, the federal investigation into the Cowboys facility collapse on Saturday may not touch on whether the building's design or construction played a role.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials said they aren't focusing on building design and construction.

"It just doesn't fall within OSHA standards," said Elizabeth Todd, a spokeswoman for the agency.

A little-known federal agency that after 9/11 was granted the powers to investigate building collapses said it won't send a team to Valley Ranch unless OSHA asks.

The apparent lack of public documents and investigative look at the structure means that the cause of the collapse may be publicly assessed only if the issue is resolved in civil court, like the collapse of another Summit structure.

The firm built a large warehouse in Philadelphia that collapsed in a February 2003 snowstorm. A Pennsylvania court later ruled that design flaws were to blame.

Months after that collapse, the Cowboys hired Summit to build the facility that was destroyed Saturday as high winds hit the area.

Irving planning and inspections director Gary Miller said Monday that the necessary seal probably appeared on documents that the city did not retain. Spaces for engineering seals were left blank on the facility's building permit application that the city provided to media on Monday. Miller said that no other records existed other than those made available Monday.

Last year, Summit replaced the fabric on the Cowboys facility. Irving officials have said the Cowboys never had them inspect any completed re-covering, as required by the city building code.

Agency's purpose

Congress in 2002 gave the National Institute of Standards and Technology the power and responsibility to look into building collapses that cause or have the potential to cause "substantial loss of life." The agency can send what's called a National Construction Safety Team to determine the technical causes of building failures.

The team's findings are meant to spur recommended changes to building standards, codes and practices. Previous safety teams looked into the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings and a Rhode Island nightclub fire that killed 100 people. It has been six years since the agency initiated an investigation on its own, though it does assist other agencies when asked.

Michael Newman, a spokesman for the institute, said it was "hard to say" whether Saturday's collapse "would require the marshaling of our forces."

He also said one reason the agency was not initiating an Irving investigation was because the National Construction Safety Team Act gives OSHA priority.

But the law says the National Institute of Standards and Technology has priority unless the National Transportation Safety Board or a criminal investigation is involved.

Glenn Corbett, who advocated for the legislation that created the construction safety teams, says the law gives a lot of power to the institute, but the agency is reluctant to use it.

"They like doing research, but they aren't people who like being detectives," said Corbett, a professor of fire sciences at John Jay College in New York.

Corbett said the Cowboys facility collapse is exactly the type of incident the institute should investigate.

"This is how we change procedures, from learning from these disasters," he said.

Firm not in Texas now

Kinney, the engineering board spokesman, said it wasn't clear whether Summit and its parent, Cover-all Building Systems, could be punished for not having a license because the work occurred six years ago. Also, there is no indication the firms, which are based in Pennsylvania and Canada, are now doing business in Texas.

Criminal enforcement requires action by local prosecutors. The board's powers are limited to issuing fines of up to $3,000 per violation and taking away licenses.

Construction ended about six months ago on another Summit project in the state, an athletic complex at Texas A&M. Summit manufactured materials for that facility and designed it, university spokesman Jason Cook said.

But Cook said Summit did not handle construction or supply the engineer of record.

A spokeswoman for Summit has declined to comment beyond saying that it "designs, engineers and builds to meet local building codes."

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