Note from Don: ITD replied to Little’s demand for info on our Idaho 55 story. It misrepresented our work & attempts to get comment

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As BoiseDev reported yesterday, Idaho Gov. Brad Little demanded a report from the Idaho Transportation Department in response to our reporting on safety in the construction zone on Idaho 55.

The governor’s office has provided BoiseDev with the letter. We’ve embedded it at the bottom of this story so you can see it in full.

In it, the department responds to some, but not all, of the points in BoiseDev’s reporting. It also mischaracterizes and misconstrues our reporting.

No news outlet likes to be in the news. But it’s important you hear from us – from me – that we stand by our reporting.

ITD claims date confusion; BoiseDev asked about it before publishing

The agency said “A misreading of dates on portions of the public records has led to inaccurate conclusions,” and pointed to our reporting around a report commissioned in 2019 on the project. The document in BoiseDev’s possession is clearly dated “Original approval date 6/19/2019” and “Last re-evaluation date 8/22/2019.”

At the bottom of the nine-page document, next to the names and signatures of preparers, another date is used: May 26, 2021. There is no narrative text on this page aside from the signatures.

ITD said in its response to Little: “(Margaret) Carmel and (Autum) Robertson’s assertion that ITD was aware of slide concerns at Cut 8 in 2019 is inaccurate. The environmental re-evaluation with mention of Cut 8 was stamped in May of 2021. It appears, Carmel and Robertson misread the document and inaccurately claimed there was department knowledge of hillside concerns prior to construction.”

If we are to take ITD at face value on this, it should be noted, that in our detailed questions to the agency, we asked, specifically, about ITD’s knowledge in 2019. Quoting from Margaret Carmel’s email to agency spokespersons Jillian Garrigues and Vince Trimboli, dated June 17 at 7:40am: “In August, 2019, there was an Environmental Reevaluation where ITD noted “unforeseen geotechnical and slope stability concerns” after construction progressed. The document described laying the slope back at a shallower angle due “lack of competent rock in the area.” Did this redesign happen? Can you tell me more specifically about what changes you all made at this time?”

ITD knew of our reporting because we explicitly told the agency so. We gave the agency a full week to reply, and this was not addressed in its minimal response. In addition, we waited another full work day to publish. This story has been live on our site since Tuesday at 10am. It is now Thursday at 6pm, and the agency has still not replied, except to the governor.

Additionally, our reporting indicates project engineer Alex Deduck said in an email, as we reported, “It seems for this project, the structural integrity of the rock was never looked at. Our pinned mesh anchors would not have sufficed and slides similar to (Cut 9 and Cut 5) would continue to happen.”

This indicates while ITD may not have known about the issues, Deduck is saying it didn’t fully study the rock that later came into question.

ITD misrepresents BoiseDev’s reporting

Later in the letter, ITD states a falsehood, and in the process tells the governor our reporting was not correct.

“The BoiseDev article claims contractors pulled workers off the jobsite on November 9, 2021, due to hazardous or unsafe conditions related to hillside stability. Hazardous working conditions were the result of weather, not due to instability of the hillside.”

The BoiseDev story says no such thing. It also does not imply it.

Here’s what it does say:

“ITD Inspector JD Lewelling filed a report on November 9, 2021, saying it was ‘raining and snowing so hard that the material on the hillside (of Cut 8) kept sloughing off’ and it prevented workers from getting any traction on the hillside. He and another inspector, Jake Hall, ultimately made the call that ‘it was getting dangerous for them to be on the hillside when material was coming down.'”

BoiseDev was careful not to make any explicit or implicit note that workers were pulled off due to hillside, or the greater worksite, due to instability. However, it should be noted, the hillside did give way ten days later.

ITD claims a geotechnical engineer who consulted with the lead engineer on the Highway 55 is merely an “employee”

Our story quotes from now-former ITD geotechnical engineer David Richards. ITD in its reply calls him merely an “employee.”

The ITD letter to Little: “The BoiseDev article pulls extensive conjecture from an ITD employee not involved with the SH- 55 Smiths Ferry to Round Valley project. The employee, who had planned retirement the week after the email referenced, did not have close project participation at the time of construction. Including these remarks in a story and positioning them as an expert opinion is out of context with the intent of the original email.”

While the story does quote from Richards’ email, he is listed as a Geotechnical Engineer for the agency and is not a layperson. 

BoiseDev is in possession of emails from Idaho 55 Project Manager Deduck to Richards, indicating the two communicated about the project. Additionally, Richards demonstrated close knowledge of the project in his email, provided by ITD to BoiseDev under the Idaho Public Records Act. 

In the Carmel email to Garrigues and Trimboli, Carmel asked about this: “On January 25th, ITD Geotechnical Engineer Dave Richards sent an email discussing several problems he saw with the project that led to the slides. This includes a lack of drilling and seismic refraction to design rockfall mitigation, as well as his suggestion to redesign the project with larger catch ditches to catch falling rock and moving the roadway away from the rock face. He pointed to lessons learned from the Goose Creek grade project, where pinned mesh wouldn’t be adequate due to incompetent rock. Were any of these suggestions something you all took under consideration?”

Again, BoiseDev gave the agency significant time to answer this question, and knew of our reporting. It did not respond.

ITD misstates our attempts to get replies to questions

Lastly, ITD misrepresented its communication with reporter Margaret Carmel. It paints an inaccurate picture of our attempts to get them to respond.

ITD’s letter to Little: “On Friday, June 17, BoiseDev’s Margaret Carmel sent ITD a list of 24 questions related to her research and review of BoiseDev’s public records request. Contained within the list of questions was an invitation by the reporter, ‘You all can choose to answer them however is easier for you,
over Zoom, in person, over the phone or via email.

ITD notified Carmel that it had begun drafting responses to her questions and invited her to visit the project site with the unexpressed intention of visually explaining the job site and answering questions at that time. Carmel declined, stating, ‘After talking it over with my colleagues, we are going to decline this opportunity due to the time crunch we’re all under to meet deadlines and me being out of town.

In the editorial, Don Day stated that the reason the opportunity was declined was over safety concerns relating to his employees and the benefit had little value for his purposes.”

Garrigues in her response to Carmel on Wednesday, June 22, said, emphasis mine: “Margaret, wanted to let you know that we are working on a response to your questions. Would you be interested in visiting the project site? We can make arrangements if so.”

In its letter to Little, ITD misrepresented the timeline of the emails, leaving out this key detail:

Carmel replied: “Can you tell me more about what it is you all would like to show us up at the site so we can decide?”

Garrigues responded, by telling us, essentially, that all we would get is photos and a walk-through.  Again, emphasis mine:

“We would walk you through the work zone so you can see the cuts in person. Might give you another perspective to see the project up close. Good opportunity to take photos too if you need those for your story.”

Since we had been told the answers to our questions were coming, it was not a good use of our time, as we had photos and a working familiarity with the area. And as I outlined in my editor’s note, I had safety concerns. Particularly, because we knew the agency took a media tour to the site last fall when there were indications of issues. I put the safety of my employees above all.

Ultimately, ITD did not answer our exceedingly detailed questions. We gave the agency significant time to do so, and it provided us with a short statement that we included throughout our story. The primary issues it outlines to the governor in our reporting were asked about, and the agency neglected to respond or set the record straight.

On Tuesday, we again asked a spokesperson to chat with us for a follow up. We haven’t heard back. The invitation remains open.

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don Day - BoiseDev Editor & Founder
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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