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2nd ‘Big Dig’ Official Suspended; DOT Culture of Secrecy Alleged

Thursday, July 14, 2011

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A second Big Dig tunnel official may lose his job after discussing pressure within his agency to avoid documenting the Boston project’s problems, such as that of a coatings failure that has caused widespread corrosion.

In an interview Sunday with the Boston Globe, Massachusetts Highway Division chief engineer Helmut R. Ernst, P.E., said that state Department of Transportation officials often failed to document safety problems for fear of leaving a paper trail or causing public embarrassment.

 Big Dig ceiling collapse, 2006
Part of the ceiling of the Big Dig collapsed in 2006, killing a 38-year-old motorist.

The growing controversy around the troubled $20 billion public works project follows the collapse of a 110-pound, eight-foot-long light fixture Feb. 8 in the tunnel. MassDOT did not tell the public or the governor about the collapse for nearly six weeks, while the agency conducted its own investigation.

Corrosion Damage Widespread

The investigation revealed widespread corrosion damage caused by paint failure on hundreds of tunnel light fixtures, especially at the tunnel entrance. Within days of the collapse, inspectors found nine other large fixtures so corroded they could have also fallen.

Engineers overseeing the tunnels, including Ernst, did not file a written report on the incident as required by state policy. State Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan did not report the problem to Gov. Deval Patrick until mid-March, and Patrick immediately informed the public.

The Boston Globe reported Sunday that the corrosion represented a bigger threat to public safety than Mullan has acknowledged and says that repairs could cost $200 million.

‘This Corrosion is Due to Paint Failure’

In a letter made public after the collapse, Ernst informed NuArt Lighting, of Fullerton, CA, the fixtures’ supplier, that paint was flaking off the tunnel lighting fixture wireway, exposing the bare aluminum below to “the environmental elements within the tunnels, causing excessive corrosion and premature failure of the wireways.”

Ernst’s letter also reported corrosion under the stainless steel clips that hold the fixtures in place.

“In many instances, it is obvious this corrosion is due to paint failure under the clip, allowing a galvanic reaction to occur between the stainless steel clip and the aluminum wireway,” he wrote. “Numerous failures appear to be associated with the stainless steel light fixture mounting clip cutting through the paint and coming in contact with the aluminum wireway.”

The owner of NuArt’s parent company, National Signal Corp., has denied providing lights for the project. National Signal was formed in 2006, acquiring NuArt in the process, about a decade after the first section of the Massachusetts Central Artery Tunnel Projects opened.

‘We Have Been Trained Not To’

As the standoff between the state and vendor continued, however, Ernst’s comments to the Globe sent concerns throughout the state legislature and quickly led to his suspension.

Ernst told the newspaper that “he had been trained not to write down problems inside the Big Dig tunnels following the 2006 ceiling collapse that killed Milena Del Valle, which resulted in costly litigation and embarrassing publicity for the state,” the Globe reported.

Asked why he had filed the required report on the fixture collapse, Ernst told the newspaper: “We have been trained not to, after all the depositions in the ceiling collapse case. We just meet and talk about it. You go across the hall and talk about it. What’s the point of putting it in writing? Things happen every day. You don’t need a record. You need time to operate, too.’’

Ernst also criticized Mullan’s decision to accept the resignation of state highway administrator Frank Tramontozzi for allegedly not communicating information about the collapse to his superiors quickly enough.

“This whole thing has left a bad taste in my mouth,’’ Ernst said. “Now, it’s kind of sad. The attitude will be ‘if I don’t do anything, I can’t get in trouble.’ ’’

‘Conduct Review’ Ordered

On Monday, the governor said of Ernst’s remarks: “It does not give me the kind of confidence that I should have, and I think the public should have, to have the chief engineer reportedly saying what he said.’’

On Wednesday, Mullan said he would “immediately assemble an outside team to lead a 10-day review of the conduct” of Ernst and other transportation officials after the fixture fell.

Emails released by MassDOT over the weekend reflect the agency’s concern about how the news media and public would respond to information about the incident and about the best way to address structural issues within the tunnels.

In an email March 17 to assistant transportation secretary Joseph Landolfi, Mullan said the timing on releasing the information was “a judgment call, on which reasonable people can disagree … The public has a right to accurate information, and we also have an obligation not to shout fire in a crowded theater when there is no fire.”

‘Nobody Says Anything’

State legislators are also watching the issue closely, and two met Monday with Mullan for a discussion.

“To me, the statement alone is a cause for concern,” said Rep. William Straus (D-Mattapoisett). “At this point, I think we’ll find out over the next days and weeks whether that’s … the statement of one person.”
 
Mullan has led MassDOT since the 2009 merger of several transportation agencies, including the old Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

Mullan told reporters on Wednesday that Ernst’s comments represented “the opposite of the culture we’ve worked to create for the past 20 months.’’ He added: “We don’t train our people to do that.”

But the Globe quoted a consultant hired by Mullan as comparing the atmosphere at MassDOT to that of the Nixon White House, “where nobody says anything, even when they should.’’

Ernst’s superior, Jack Wright, did not even mention that a light fixture had fallen in a detailed federal grant application seeking money to help address the corrosion problem, the Globe reported.

   

Tagged categories: Coating failure; Corrosion; Engineers; Health and safety; Public Transit

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