Senate report: Caltrans ignored shoddy work on Bay Bridge in China and U.S.

01/22/2014 3:26 PM

01/22/2014 11:59 PM

The California Senate provided new details Wednesday about construction lapses on the eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and raised fresh doubts about the long-term reliability of the $6.4 billion project.

The Senate report, prepared by an outside consultant for the Committee on Transportation and Housing, offers background for a Friday hearing to examine allegations of lapses in quality control during a push to complete a structure running years behind schedule and billions over budget.

Among the report’s key revelations:

• Quality control managers found thousands of cracks in welds produced by a Chinese contractor for the span’s signature tower and roadway. Rather than ordering all needed fixes, top California Department of Transportation managers replaced those who discovered the problems.
• Millions of dollars were paid to the same Chinese contractor to speed up work after it fell behind schedule and bridge officials urgently wanted faster results.
• Bridge officials rejected warnings in 2008 that suspect anchor rods for the suspension span were not adequately tested; some of those rods snapped last year.
• Officials frequently told contractors and employees not to put concerns about quality into writing – ostensibly to avoid disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

“I’m shocked at the apparently deliberate effort to cover up what was happening from the public” and elected officials, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the committee, said in an interview. He blamed Caltrans’ “insular culture,” which he said “has got to stop.”

Most in state employment take public trust seriously, DeSaulnier said. “But unfortunately there are too many people in positions of power who do not, and apparently get away with it and get promoted.”

Caltrans will have a chance to respond to the preliminary report, authored by Roland De Wolk, a former news producer for a Bay Area television station. A Bay Bridge spokesman said that no officials would comment on the report Wednesday, but would do so at the Friday hearing.

If warranted after his investigation is completed, DeSaulnier said, some matters might be referred to legal authorities for prosecution.

“It’s no wonder when you read these things that many Californians don’t trust the government,” he said.

The span opened last September after years of concerns about the quality of its welds, foundations, anchor bolts and steel tendons that support its skyway viaduct. Testing, evaluation and repair of some of those items continue as traffic flows over the structure that connects Oakland to Yerba Buena Island in the San Francisco Bay.

Chinese weld defects

Jim Merrill, formerly a top manager with MacTec Engineering and Consulting Inc., oversaw Bay Bridge quality control work in China from 2006 through 2008 and was a key source for the report. In 2008 he warned Caltrans officials that parts produced by Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. contained “hundreds of cracks,” prohibited by the contract and by welding codes.

The work took place on Changxing Island near Shanghai, where most of the steel for the suspension span tower and roadway was assembled.

The report said Merrill believes that bridge managers were more concerned about the schedule than safety.

Philip J. Stolarksi, a deputy chief for Caltrans’ Division of Engineering Services, agreed with Merrill. “For the Chinese, the weld standards were ‘suggestions,’ ” the report quoted Stolarski as saying.

Douglas Coe, a Caltrans bridge engineer who served for years as a top Bay Bridge manager, was forced off his job supervising Chinese work in 2009 after finding cracked welds on parts for the suspension span’s signature tower, then instructing the builder to augment testing. Top bridge manager Tony Anziano ordered Coe to rescind those instructions.

Soon afterward, Coe was reassigned from China to the Antioch Bridge that links Contra Costa and Sacramento counties over the San Joaquin River.

Thousands of cracks were detected, according to Coe’s account. “The Chinese were not catching stuff,” he was quoted as saying. “Normally, we would have stopped (fabrication),” but he felt “pressure not to stop.”

Coe added that Peter E. Siegenthaler, formerly a top bridge manager, essentially told Merrill, “Don’t find cracks.”

Anziano and Siegenthaler rejected the accusations as unfounded, according to the report.

A few months after Merrill’s 2008 warning, his firm lost its inspection contract to Rancho Cucamonga-based Caltrop Corp., whose subcontractor – Alta Vista Solutions, an Emeryville firm founded in June 2008 by two former MacTec employees – handled oversight on much of the Chinese work.

During contract bidding, Caltrans hired Michael Mayes of Mayes Testing Engineers Inc., a materials testing and inspection firm with offices in Washington and Oregon, to assess Caltrop and Alta Vista for their experience and knowledge of weld testing.

Mayes said in an interview that many of the technicians he tested lacked bridge experience, and could not successfully perform tests with acoustic equipment that is required by the welding code. Only after they were replaced with former employees of MacTec could the team be certified.

Mayes said so far as he knew, his report to Anziano was never made final.

Draft reports can be withheld under the Public Records Act. The Sacramento Bee requested all such audits last June, but none has been released.

Coe and Merrill said that Siegenthaler and Anziano generally discouraged writing quality concerns “either on paper or email, but rather to communicate orally,” perhaps to keep records out of the public eye, the Senate report noted.

Siegenthaler left Caltrans to become executive vice president of Alta Vista in October 2011. Alta Vista won the $21 million prime contract to oversee quality control for the new span’s materials two months after he arrived.

Inspectors cited ZPMC for substandard work or improper practices in at least 965 “nonconformance reports” over the course of the contract. The Sacramento Bee recently obtained most of those from Caltrans under the California Public Records Act.

Hundreds of the reports involved cracked welds or other metalworking problems. ZPMC showed little apparent improvement after Merrill made his concerns known to Caltrans and the Caltrop-Alta Vista team took over inspection duties. The company continually pledged to train and supervise workers more effectively. Such efforts apparently fell short.

William J. Wright, an expert in bridge design, metal-fatigue and the bridge-failure forensics at Virginia Tech, told The Sacramento Bee last year that cracks should be avoided whenever possible, in part because they can worsen over time due to cycles of “loading” caused by the weight of traffic, and the stress of seismic activity.

According to the Senate report, Anziano and Siegenthaler said the cracks were largely fixed, and denied that they posed a safety problem.

Anziano – an attorney, not an engineer – denied that anyone “was discouraged in reporting quality assurance” and described the dispute as “healthy conversations” and “philosophical disagreements” regarding weld quality. Anziano and Siegenthaler were quoted as calling the weld approvals sensible “streamlining,” for the complex project.

Contractor warned about rods

According to the report, Merrill also suggested more testing of the high-strength steel anchor rods for the suspension span. Caltrans vetoed the idea – the urgent construction schedule again took precedence over essential quality control, according to Merrill’s account.

“I got told we weren’t doing any testing and to stop mentioning it,” Merrill was quoted as saying. “I was basically told to stop bringing it up. That was the end of that.”

The rods broke last spring, forcing tens of millions of dollars in retrofitting and ongoing testing, and casting doubt on the span’s long-term structural integrity.

Coe and Merrill believe the bridge is still safe, the report noted, but predicted that it will require additional retrofitting and might not last its planned 150-year lifespan.

Michael Morgan, a Caltrans engineering geologist and expert in the testing of foundations for bridges, told the Senate investigator that Caltrans officials never adequately addressed concerns about the concrete and steel foundation for the new span’s tower. Some of the foundation piles showed possible defects and their evaluation was hampered by missing records, he told the Senate investigator.

In 2011 and 2012, stories in The Sacramento Bee detailed doubts about the foundation’s concrete. An independent review of the issue, coordinated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, is in process.

The Friday hearing would be the second in the most recent series by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee to examine the lengthy delays, cost overruns, and construction mishaps on the new Bay Bridge.

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