The California Highway Patrol has opened an administrative investigation into the handling of welding problems that affected some sections of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge fabricated in China.
When the Transportation Agency heard serious allegations during a recent committee hearing, it asked the CHP to see if the facts show something more than a professional disagreement five years ago, Gareth Lacy, spokesman for the state Transportation Agency, which oversees the California Department of Transportation, said in an email. This is an administrative inquiry, not a criminal probe. Accountability matters, so if anything improper occurred, we will act accordingly.
Caltrans spokeswoman Tamie McGowen said that her department was cooperating with the investigation but otherwise had no comment.
Lisa Thomas, a metallurgical and materials engineer at Berkeley Research Company, a testing and consulting laboratory, told The Sacramento Bee that she had been contacted for information by a CHP sergeant for his inquiry, sparked by testimony at a Jan. 24 hearing of the California Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
Thomas said she was told the CHP is examining concerns from Caltrans Supervising Bridge Engineer Douglas Coe, who worked in China as a high-level quality supervisor, about how Caltrans managed cracked welds in girders of the suspension span. Thomas said she referred the investigator to others with greater expertise in welding.
The CHP is empowered to investigate a range of issues statewide beyond its more basic policing of the states highways. Its spokeswoman, Fran Clader, declined to confirm any investigation in keeping with department policy.
The CHP assists with, or primarily conducts, investigations of other state agencies and their personnel, she said via email. This may be done in both criminal and noncriminal matters.
Two other sources told The Bee that they had been approached by the CHP; they spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve their relationships with investigators. One said investigators are looking at possible irregularities in how Caltrans transferred a quality-control contract involving bridge welds from one private firm to another.
At the Senate hearing, James Merrill, formerly a top quality manager for a Caltrans contractor in China, MacTec Engineering and Consulting Inc., said his company lost its contract soon after he warned Caltrans managers about serious and ongoing welding problems. Merrill said he was told to ignore cracks in some welds.
Merrill and Coe told senators in January that inspectors had found hundreds of cracked welds in roadway box girders, which were fabricated in Shanghai by Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. According to Coe, top Caltrans officials on the job, including Tony Anziano, the new spans chief executive, said to ignore potential flaws to keep production on schedule.
Coe said such demands, which he called unprecedented in his decades of bridge-building experience for Caltrans, left him flabbergasted.
Soon after Coe aired his concerns, Anziano removed him from the China job. Anziano told senators that he did so because Coe had created adversarial relations with the bridge-fabrication contractors.
At the hearing, Coe and Merrill said Anziano and other managers discouraged recording certain quality problems, in what they interpreted as a move to circumvent disclosures under the state Public Records Act. Anziano responded that he only insisted that reports be written carefully and accurately.
After Coe left the job, Caltrans analyzed the weld problem and concluded that some cracks could be left in place without endangering the structure. Others were repaired.
Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chairman of the Transportation and Housing Committee, applauded the CHPs probe.
The intention of the Senate investigation was always to turn it over to the governors office and the attorney generals office for a criminal investigation to make sure people are held accountable, he said.
The $6.5 billion bridge opened last year. It has been beset by construction, materials-quality and testing problems for years:
• Independent expert review: An engineering panel coordinated by the Legislative Analysts Office will examine concerns raised in a Sacramento Bee investigation involving concrete in the foundation of the spans famous tower, and other concerns about materials used in the bridge.
• Caltrans anchor rod tests: The department is conducting tests to determine whether thousands of anchor rods and bolts that secure the tower and cable of the suspension span will be reliable over time. Doubts arose last year when rods that secured key seismic equipment snapped.
• Caltrans review of leaks: After rainwater infiltrated the interior of the suspension span in January, the department began to study methods for sealing leaks at the bridge deck.
• Ongoing concerns: After the leaks and reports that welds on the suspension span deck were accepted despite misalignments in some places, Caltrans is drawing up a list of other problems or special maintenance concerns. The list will be made public once finalized.
• Welding problems: The California Highway Patrol is investigating how Caltrans handled the discovery of cracked welds in bridge sections fabricated in China.
Call The Bees Charles Piller, (916) 321-1113. Follow him on Twitter @cpiller.