By Charles Piller, August 5, 2014
In this January file photo, work continues on the new eastern span of the San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco.
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.
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.
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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
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.