In South Florida and coastal areas worldwide, corrosion is a cry for help


By Linda E. Marquez, AMPP Surfside Collapse Task Force Chair

Viewing the world as a corrosion control professional is often troubling. We notice things others don’t. Rust stains tell us to look for a problem, spalling concrete says, “fix me, find what caused me.” We are most troubled when asset owners see these issues and still fail to act. When corrosion is evident, especially to even the untrained eye, it should be considered an asset’s urgent cry for help, and as experts in this field it is our responsibility to provide that help.

The Association for Materials Protection and Performance (AMPP) advances the performance of materials such as protective coatings, metals and alloys, and concrete among others, to protect society, assets, and the environment. We accomplish this mission through workforce education and credentialing, contractor accreditation, technological innovation, and global standardization of best practices. Most importantly, we serve as a resource for decisionmakers to ensure public policy is developed to protect the public and the environment.

AMPP commends a recently published report from a Miami-Dade Grand Jury on the Champlain Towers South Collapse. The report includes many references to corrosion’s role in the deterioration of buildings, which can accelerate in salt air environments. While the definitive cause or causes of the collapse in Surfside are still under investigation, corrosion can cause such destruction, and likely contributed, especially given the seaside location of the Champlain complex.

Corrosion isn’t just a nuisance or a cost of doing business. It should be viewed as a grave warning. Decisions should be based on best practices and technical standards, not on finances. Painting over corrosion or patching repairs doesn’t increase asset integrity or sustainability. These actions might make a building more aesthetically pleasing, but they do not increase safety and in some instances may contribute to further deterioration.

In their report, the grand jury urged policymakers to “save lives, not just money.” This refrain is something we’ve heard time and time again, but unfortunately, it rarely drives corrosion control decisions. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. You can save lives and money through proactive planning. Having a corrosion plan from the start reduces costs by extending an asset’s useful life. A plan also eliminates threats to safety and avoids costly litigation.

When Florida State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle called on the grand jury to analyze the circumstances that may have contributed to the collapse, she instructed the jury to focus on the policies, procedures, protocols, systems, and practices related to building design, construction, and maintenance. The jury returned with 40 recommendations, including raising qualification standards for inspectors. Respectfully, we suggest that inspectors also be trained and qualified in corrosion prevention.

A professional engineer or structural engineer may possess some corrosion control knowledge, but a corrosion engineer or practitioner brings focused, in-depth experience and knowledge and can identify what must be repaired or replaced to slow and prevent the progression of corrosion. In South Florida and other coastal areas where salt air is an inevitable factor, specialized expertise is essential.

In June, AMPP assembled a task force of renowned experts in corrosion of reinforced concrete structures. The group is engaged in analysis of the Champlain Towers South disaster to understand the root causes of the disaster. The task force is identifying existing technical standards or needed new standards, guidelines, work practices and training requirements to improve inspection, evaluation, and ensuing repairs of concrete structures. In 2022 the task force will provide supporting information to local, state, and federal officials, and those tasked with investigating this disaster at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).

The task force is completing a white paper that will be made available to NIST and to those updating Florida’s building codes for consideration as part of investigation efforts and the development of new laws, codes, and standards. The group is also compiling resources to inform HOA management companies of red flags associated with ignoring corrosion and other key maintenance needs.

Sadly, the tragedy in Surfside is only the most recent example of an asset failing and lives lost. As a society, we’ll continue to see these tragedies unless we reform how we protect assets from corrosion. AMPP is here to assist all decisionmakers to ensure safe, long lasting, reliable infrastructure.

Originally published in the April 2022 issue of Materials Performance Magazine