Senator to push Attorney General to launch criminal probe on Bay Bridge construction

08/05/2014 8:41 PM

10/07/2014 6:17 PM

California Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said Tuesday that he would deliver findings from his investigation of Bay Bridge construction issues to state Attorney General Kamala Harris to request a criminal investigation of actions by the California Department of Transportation and some of its contractors.

His comments came prior to a Senate hearing Tuesday where witnesses said that Caltrans managers directed inspectors to ignore serious welding issues in China for key sections of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, leaving doubts about its long-term durability.

The hearing followed a Senate report released last week that said Caltrans “gagged and banished” several quality managers on the new $6.5 billion structure after they tried to correct substandard work by Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., or ZPMC, the Chinese firm that built much of the suspension span roadway and tower.

Keith Devonport, a contract fabrication manager in Shanghai, said bridge managers, including Peter Siegenthaler, the top manager in China for most of the job, approved production over the objections of other top managers who believed weld cracks were being overlooked. He said Caltrans managers also blocked a specialized use of high-frequency sound waves that found “transverse” cracks – ones that run across welds – missed by other test methods.

Devonport, who testified via Skype from his home in England, said the bridge project’s chief executive, Tony Anziano, showed “willful blindness” about the problems. Anziano removed him from the job for his complaints about quality, Devonport said. His comments echoed the report by an investigator for the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, which said that Anziano quashed dissent on the project.

DeSaulnier, who chairs the committee, noted that the Bay Area Toll Authority has reserved substantial funds for possible retrofits, yet Caltrans has acted as if “nothing happened.”

“Somebody should be held accountable,” for problems on the new span, DeSaulnier said. He attributed them partly to what a team of experts called “a culture of fear” at the department.

Also in remarks prior to the hearing, Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said his agency was confident in the quality and safety of the new span, but would keep a close eye on certain issues raised in recent reports, including the welds of the suspension span roadway. The Sacramento Bee reported in June that Caltrans allowed weld cracks despite their prohibition by the bridge code.

Asked if Caltrans had a credibility problem, Dougherty said, “I think I’ve got to regain the trust of the senator and then the public.”

During the hearing, DeSaulnier told Caltrans executives, “you’re in denial” about the challenges in the department’s culture that have consistently resulted in employees being rebuffed by superiors when they raise safety and construction complaints.

“I resent the writing off of people who have come forward” with such concerns, DeSaulnier said. He cited Caltrans engineering geologist Michael Morgan, who was thwarted in his attempts to have serious problems in the Caltrans foundation testing unit addressed. DeSaulnier said Morgan showed integrity by providing bridge testing data to The Bee. The documents led to a Bee investigation of concerns about the reliability of bridge foundations across the state, including the Bay Bridge, and led to reforms in the Caltrans testing process.

Brian P. Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, said at the hearing that “mistakes were made Human beings are fallible.” But Kelly said that corrections were made and that the new bridge is safe. DeSaulnier agreed.

Kelly said some blame for mistakes, including construction problems, management secrecy and delays, should fall on both Caltrans and elected officials. Among the overall effects were high costs and reduced public confidence, he said, pointing to “the importance of transparency from beginning to end” for any new megaproject.

Kelly said he takes the allegations of wrongdoing seriously, which is why he asked the California Highway Patrol to examine allegations of contracting and construction irregularities and retaliation against dissenters.

“That investigation is thorough and ongoing. Once it is complete, I will act accordingly,” he said.

The Bay Bridge, which opened to traffic last Labor Day weekend despite many construction tasks still in process, is a lifeline structure meant to return to service within 24 hours after the largest expected earthquake. Experts who testified at the hearing said costly repairs could be required during its 150-year projected service. Caltrans officials said any needed repairs would be routine.

Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, asked Kelly whether the value of the bridge has suffered as a result of all the problems. “I don’t think you are buying a lemon,” Kelly replied, drawing one of the few laughs during the somber hearing. Caltrans agreed to respond in writing with cost estimates for future maintenance of the Bay Bridge.

Anziano defended his actions at the hearing, denying concealment or retaliation against dissenters. He said concerns about weld quality were addressed “and, I strongly believe, resolved, resolved with respect to quality.”

Anziano said the problems at the Chinese fabricator were typical of those any firm would experience on a complex structure like the new bridge roadway – a comment DeSaulnier called “unbelievable” given the many instances that have come to light in which ZPMC refused to comply with U.S. standards.

Among the major problems was the training level of the firm’s welders. Devonport told senators that up to half failed qualification tests for the difficult welds on roadway girders. ZPMC resisted better training, he said, because many of the welders used by the firm were contractors, and once trained, might leave for better jobs at other companies.

Nate Lindell, former quality assurance manager for American Bridge/Fluor, or ABF, the prime contractor above ZPMC, serves on American Welding Society committees that write the welding codes. He told the Senate committee that, “It was very common for (ZPMC welders) to sleep through the entire training,” calling it a “futile effort.”

Lindell – who was dismissed by ABF after complaining about quality issues – validated claims by another top quality contractor, Jim Merrill, that Caltrans managers said to ignore cracks in welds where stiffeners were attached under the roadway deck. “The rules were changed, and I question why,” Lindell said. “Why change the code? Why change the specifications? Why not allow the same requirements as if an American fabricator was to fabricate this in the States?”

Lindell and Devonport also said that the definitive Caltrans database of the Chinese welds – still being created – likely will contain many inaccuracies because some of the information provided by ZPMC was unreliable or because Caltrans officials forbid certain tests that would show flaws in welds.

“There’s a high probability that there are embedded cracks in the welds on the bridge. As to whether they will (expand) to cause a real problem, it’s difficult to say,” Devonport said, urging further tests on the welds using the method that Caltrans did not allow in China.

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