Senate report: Caltrans ‘gagged and banished’ Bay Bridge critics

07/31/2014 3:30 PM

10/08/2014 12:50 PM

A California Senate report released Thursday said that Department of Transportation managers “gagged and banished” at least nine top experts for the new $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after they complained about substandard work by the Shanghai, China, firm that built much of the span.

Caltrans’ chief executive for the job, Tony Anziano, removed or demoted quality-assurance and fabrication engineers who tried to force the contractor to fix cracked roadway welds, the report said. It added to conclusions in an earlier draft, and validated findings in a June Sacramento Bee investigation.

Among the Senate report’s key points:

• Bridge managers “attempted to keep many serious allegations quiet part of an institutionalized, if not malicious, lack of transparency in the project.”
• “(T)op managers ultimately punished dissidents by either dissolving their contracts or transferring them to other assignments.”
• After falling behind the required schedule due to problems of its own making, the Chinese contractor was paid hundreds of millions in public dollars to induce faster work.
• Cracking problems might extend to the span’s iconic tower.

The 61-page report for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee followed a recent call by the committee chair, Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, for a criminal probe into the actions of Caltrans and its contractors. The matter will be discussed at an Aug. 5 hearing.

The report, authored by investigative reporter Roland De Wolk, did not assess the quality of the bridge or its safety. Many experts questioned the durability of the new span and predicted that it would require retrofitting well ahead of its planned 150-year lifespan, but none said that defects make the structure unsafe in a large quake or during normal use, as other experts have warned. The Bay Bridge, a lifeline structure meant to return to service within 24 hours after the largest anticipated earthquake in one of the nation’s most seismically unstable regions, opened to traffic last September.

The report called for greater openness in large construction projects, a review of the weld problems by independent experts, and an investigation of allegations that engineering decisions were made by non-engineers.

Anziano said in the report that he recalled only “healthy conversations” and “philosophical disagreements” – and could recall few of the concerns raised by the nine engineers. Nor did he remove anyone from the job for complaining about quality, Anziano said.

In a formal response to DeSaulnier, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty agreed that better records management would have been beneficial for the vast project, but otherwise rejected nearly every point in the Senate report. Dougherty said no cracks were found in the tower, but supplementary documents he supplied to DeSaulnier showed the presence of cracks.

“All engineering decisions were made by engineers and the De Wolk Final Report provides no contrary evidence,” Dougherty said. All possible flaws in welds “required for the performance of the structure” were carefully studied and repaired as needed.

In an interview, DeSaulnier called the Caltrans response “really sad.”

“They just don’t seem capable of admitting that there were serious mistakes, serious critics,” he said. “They don’t admit anything went wrong despite the fact that they are $5 billion over budget and that we don’t know what we got for it. It’s nothing short of unbelievable.”

Engineers’ concerns quashed

An earlier version of the Senate report, released in January, said that Anziano removed Douglas Coe, a top Caltrans engineer, after he complained about weld flaws and tried to enforce higher standards during the fabrication process in China, which took place between 2007 and 2011. Quality-assurance contractor Jim Merrill, who worked for MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc. on the bridge job, said his firm was replaced by Alta Vista Solutions, a competing company, after he protested substandard welds.

In June, The Bee reported widespread weld cracking in the suspension span roadway box girders, quoting engineering managers for the job. The Senate report adds details from interviews with those experts and others.

Keith Devonport, fabrication manager in Shanghai, said in the final Senate report that a key quality expert relied on by Caltrans ignored cracking and “sugar-coated” his observations for Caltrans. Devonport said welders for the Chinese firm, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., known as ZPMC, skipped mandatory training sessions.

Anziano prevented adequate inspections by blocking the use of ultrasonic testing – using high-frequency sound waves – at a specialized setting, according to Devonport. That setting found weld cracks in the box girders of the suspension span roadway missed by other techniques.

To argue the case for more stringent tests, Devonport arranged for Anziano to meet with experts from The Welding Institute – a well-respected Cambridge, England-based research group which concluded that “for these welds to crack there must have been serious disregard for the welding procedure.”

Devonport said he told Anziano and Alta Vista Solutions, which replaced Merrill’s firm, that cracking problems extended to the tower, and that bridge managers showed “willful blindness” about the problems. Devonport also questioned Alta Vista’s oversight. Soon afterward, he was removed from the job.

Welding test contractors John Kinsey and David McClary, each of whom worked under Caltrans, MACTEC or Alta Vista in Shanghai, shared many of Devonport’s concerns, the Senate report said. Kinsey said an Alta Vista executive lied about important test information. He was reassigned by Alta Vista, and left the job in 2011, according to the Senate report.

Gary Pursell, a principal transportation engineer for Caltrans and a top manager on the job, said Anziano stripped him of his authority after Pursell objected that cracks were not being fixed. Like others who raised concerns that could delay the job, Pursell was reassigned.

In June The Bee quoted job diaries from another high-level Caltrans bridge engineering manager, Rich Morrow, who complained about low morale in Shanghai after Anziano and other top Caltrans managers compromised on quality.

In the Senate report, Morrow said that while legally permissible, some contract changes, which funneled millions of dollars to the builders, “showed poor judgment.” He refused to sign off, forcing chief engineer Brian Maroney to sign in his place. Morrow was forced off the job soon afterward, the report said.

Nate Lindell managed quality assurance for American Bridge/Fluor, or ABF, the prime contractor above ZPMC. Lindell, a member of the American Welding Society committees that write the relevant codes, shed new light on a central controversy in the production of the bridge. It involved an ongoing problem with “tack welds” – preliminary welds, about 3 inches long, meant to hold in place steel parts in preparation for final welds.

Merrill told Caltrans managers that substandard welding caused cracks in the tack welds that often remained underneath final welds, where they might expand, or “propagate,” fracturing the underlying steel. He testified at a January Senate hearing that he was directed to ignore such cracks where stiffeners called U-ribs attached to the underside of the bridge roadway deck.

“Mr. Anziano instructed inspectors to not inspect between the crucial tack welds in rib joints,” Lindell said, according to the Senate report, confirming Merrill’s complaint.

Caltrans asked John Fisher, an expert on metal fractures and emeritus professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., to review the matter. Although the cracks were prohibited by the welding code and contract, Fisher said they would cause no harm, and Caltrans changed the contract to allow them.

Fisher’s conclusion shocked Lindell, he told the Senate investigator. “He’s crazy,” he said, referring to Fisher. “I’ve seen cracks propagate in fabrication. I mean major.”

Lindell also complained that ZPMC welding records were riddled with errors and that the Chinese firm refused to record data accurately. Soon afterward, ABF reduced Lindell’s role, then dismissed him, the report noted.

Official denials

The report said Anziano disputed some concerns raised by the engineers and didn’t recall other conflicts or disagreements. Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and chair of a state panel that approves major decisions taken on projects, supported Anziano, but acknowledged that the bridge executive “almost lost his job in 2009” because he “was not as transparent with us as we wanted him to be. Attorneys will tell you what you need to know. Not much else.”

Heminger “dismissed much of the criticism as ‘professional jealousy’ by ‘disgruntled’ workers,” according to the report.

A separate investigation of some of the Chinese weld issues by the California Highway Patrol was ordered in March by Brian P. Kelly, secretary of the California Transportation Agency. CHP does not comment on pending investigations, but individuals interviewed by its officers told The Bee that Alta Vista’s actions are a principal subject of the probe. At the same time, a $5 million contract to oversee quality inspections for the Bay Bridge – currently held by Alta Vista – is undergoing a new round of competitive bidding.

Alta Vista is sponsoring a showing Monday of a public relations film about the bridge, at which Kelly will be speaking.

The state Political Reform Act does not prohibit such speaking engagements. But Hana Callaghan, director of government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, while unfamiliar with the details of the event, said government officials should approach such situations with care.

“When an agency head has ordered an investigation, then acts in a manner that is friendly to that company or organization, it’s almost as though he’s indicating a bias for how the (probe) should turn out,” she said. “I find that problematic.”

In contract bidding, she said, top officials “have a duty of fairness to treat vendors the same.” Kelly’s presence at the film showing might create “an appearance of a lack of impartiality.”

A spokesman for Kelly said he had been interviewed for the film, and planned to attend the event, but did not reply to questions about whether there is a conflict.

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