Federal and state officials say San Francisco International Airport's lack of proper maintenance and inspections led to the erosion of a seawall that prompted calls for emergency repairs.
Last week SFO was slated to begin construction work on the wall that protects the airport's perimeter from San Francisco Bay, a month after the Board of Supervisors approved $1.5 million in airport capital improvement funds to pay for the job.
And, since then, the problem has gotten worse, according to airport spokesman Doug Yakel.
"Erosion is continuing," Yakel said. "The wall has not failed, which is what we're trying to stave off."
An inspection over the summer found the wall was significantly eroded, prompting the airport to declare an emergency and a top SFO official later said the structure needed to be shored up quickly to prevent flooding on all of the airport's runways and taxiways.
SFO has been working to secure permits for the job from the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission as well as from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Both agencies say the erosion was a long-term problem and should not be qualified as an emergency.
"Just because SFO declares an emergency doesn't mean that the regulatory agencies which protect the Bay would declare an emergency," said commission executive director Larry Goldzband in an interview.
The commission "finally" received information it requested from the airport and plans to issue an amended permit that retroactively allows SFO to fix the seawall, Goldzband said, adding that it took the airport too long to answer the commission's questions.
If the erosion problems were reported to the commission earlier, regulators could have considered potentially stronger plans to repair the seawall, Goldzband said. Instead, the agency is issuing an "after-the-fact" permit, which it doesn't like doing, he said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a similar permit.
"I did deem this project not an emergency," said Janelle Leeson, regulatory project manager at the federal agency's San Francisco district. "From the Corps' standpoint it was deferred maintenance," Leeson said in an interview. "It's been deteriorating over years."
The permit through the Army Corp of Engineers is for temporary work, according to Leeson. SFO plans to work on a permanent repair by 2020, she said.
The airport, though, says the damage to the seawall is unprecedented.
Once inspectors detected the erosion, the airport wanted to take care of it as soon as possible, according to Martha Whetstone, SFO's Government Affairs Manager.
"They want to shore it up as soon as possible, and yes, we consider that an emergency" Whetstone said, also in an interview.
Goldzband says SFO conducted irregular inspections. "They have a regular inspection protocol but for some reason the protocol was not followed in 2015," he said.
At a Supervisors' committee hearing in November, airport officials said they are working on increasing inspections of SFO’s 8-mile perimeter seawall.
KQED's Peter Jon Shuler contributed to this report.