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Bridge Issues Raise Criminal Concerns

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

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California transportation officials are in the hot seat over allegations of poor construction and whistleblower retaliation on the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.

The $6.5 billion new bridge opened Sept. 2, 2013—about "10 years late and $5 billion over budget," according to State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who is calling for the Attorney General to launch a criminal investigation into the actions of the California Department of Transportation and some of its contractors.

DeSaulnier chairs the state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, which met Aug. 5 for the eighth time in a series of oversight hearings involving the Bay Bridge project. This was the third hearing that looked into why the project was significantly delayed and over budget.

The hearing largely focused on allegations that Caltrans "gagged and banished" workers who spoke out about substandard work, based on information presented in the Senate's final report, "The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge: Basic Reforms for the Future."

Agreement on Transparency

The report, put together by an outside consultant commissioned by DeSaulnier, builds on a preliminary investigation by the same title that was released in January.

Wikimedia Commons / Frank Schulenburg

California's Senate Transportation and Housing Committee released a report that found nine engineers had been dismissed from the Bay Bridge project, primarily for speaking out about poor welding work.

Caltrans presented its own analysis of overarching management and organizational practices during the project, focusing on what did and did not work well.

Malcolm Dougherty, director of Caltrans, issued the agency's response before the meeting. Dougherty said the department "used appropriate methodologies, approaches and assumptions during design and construction activities." 

Additionally, Caltrans noted that none of the issues in the Senate's final report called the bridge's safety into question.

"I wholeheartedly agree that transparency is a vital component to the Department's success, especially on projects of this size and complexity," Dougherty wrote.

"The toll payers are justifiably frustrated, and they demand answers," DeSaulnier stated before the committee meeting. "[W]e have brought in an outside investigator and experts to provide independent reports in an effort to help find answers.

"These independent reports speak for themselves. Caltrans needs to become more accessible and open to the public."

Engineers' Complaints

Overall, nine engineers have said they were removed from the project after complaining about multiple issues, primarily the quality of welding work by the Chinese firm that built a majority of the suspension span roadway and tower, Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., or ZPMC.

Keith Devonport, a contract fabrication manager in Shanghai, testified that bridge managers had approved production even though other managers said weld cracks were being overlooked. Devonport said the project's chief executive, Tony Anziano, showed "willful blindness" about the problems, and Anziano removed him from the job for complaining about quality.

Anziano defended himself at the hearing, and said problems at the Chinese fabricator were typical for a complex structure.

"The toll payers are justifiably frustrated, and they demand answers," said State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier.

Nate Lindell, the former quality assurance manager for prime contractor American Bridge/Fluor and member of the American Welding Society committees that write the welding codes, told the Senate that, "It was very common for (ZPMC welders) to sleep through the entire training."

ABF allegedly removed Lindell from the project after he complained about quality issues.

Another quality manager, Jim Merrill, reportedly questioned Caltrans managers who said to ignore cracks in welds where stiffeners were attached under the roadway deck.

Highway Patrol Gets Involved

Brian P. Kelly, secretary of the California State Transportation Agency, said he had asked the California Highway Patrol to look into allegations of contracting and construction irregularities and retaliation.

The CHP investigation will investigate whether the state Public Records Act was violated by bridge officials allegedly hiding evidence of problems, according to

Kelly said at least 50 people had been interviewed as part of the investigation, which is an administrative investigation, not a criminal inquiry. Kelly wouldn't describe what might happen once the CHP issues its report, reported.

Caltrans Calls Out Neglect

"The Department did not ignore or shy away when challenges or concerns did arise," said Dougherty. "In fact, the Department met these issues head on and took the extraordinary step to seek ouside experts in addition to State staff and consultants to ensure proper measures were being taken to address any concerns."

DeSaulnier wants the Attorney General to launch a criminal investigation. The California Highway Patrol is performing an administrative investigation.

"Allegations that 'bridge managers quckly dismissed' these issues are absolutely false, because the issues were investigated thoroughly and decisions are well-documented."

According to Dougherty, the Senate's final report neglected to incorporate or acknowledge Caltran's February response to the preliminary investigation.

"That information directly contradicts many of the points raised in the [final report] and the failure to incorporate that update weakens the report's utility," Dougherty said.


Tagged categories: Bridges; Department of Transportation (DOT); Engineers; Government contracts; Program/Project Management; Whistle blowing

Comment from otis wayne Hale, (8/12/2014, 2:42 AM)

This job has been a shambles from start to finish..Nate nailed it.

Comment from James Gravley, (8/12/2014, 11:32 AM)

This was a case of very bad weld quality from the fabricator in China !I would see bridge fabrications being repaired in shops all over the US that were fbaricated in China for the Bay Bridge with some terrible welding and laminations in the material.The fact that the project was 5 billion over budget does not surprise me with all of the repair work that was done.This article is right on the money based upon what I have seen done on this project.

Comment from Randy Gordon, (8/12/2014, 10:26 PM)

Just wait until the $30,000,000,000.00 100 mph high speed train from turlock to Lodi starts.

Comment from Karen Fischer, (8/13/2014, 9:26 AM)

China doesn't have a long history of sending their "best" products to the US....

Comment from Mark Lewis, (8/14/2014, 11:35 AM)

Hard to believe that the SF-Oakland Bay Bridge is a finalist for an ASCE award. There is no engineering need for a $6.5B suspension bridge at the site. The bridge does not cross a shipping channel. A simple causeway would have worked just fine.

Comment from Randy Gordon, (8/14/2014, 12:48 PM)

That was one of the designs back in the 90’s. You’re right, other than it being a lifeline bridge (Must remain standing when others fail in the big one), it could have been much less, but everyone rallied around something pretty back then. Everyone was arguing constantly and after Caltrans had spent millions in design options, it was like every mom & pop engineering firm would go on the news and explain how critically flawed whatever design was up for consideration at the time. You can thank the mayor at the time (JERRY BROWNDOGGLE) for playing a large role in the suspension span. As stated, sometime in the future we'll have to thank BROWNSTAIN again for the high speed train to nowhere. ::Embarrassed::

Comment from Karen Fischer, (8/15/2014, 10:55 AM)

Randy... sounds like the City of Buffalo and the new Peace Bridge between US & Canada.... which is still not built... after nearly 20 years of posturing by everyone...

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