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Chinese Steel Riles U.S. Bridge Group

Friday, July 5, 2013

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The U.S. steel bridge industry is firing back at a new report describing the growing use of Chinese bridge steel and alleging lack of “bridge expertise at home.”

In an article June 20 headlined "U.S. Icons Now Made of Chinese Steel," the Wall Street Journal notes that Chinese-made steel is being used to repair New York's Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and was used in the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge project.

The analysis reports that Chinese steel imports into the U.S. increased by 33 percent in the first four months of 2013—on top of an increase of more than 60 percent between 2011 and 2012. Most of that steel now goes into U.S. bridge and building projects, the newspaper said.

San Francisco-Bay Bridge

In 2011, California outsourced manufacturing of the main parts of the San Francisco-Bay Bridge to Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries to save $400 million.

U.S. steel mills, meanwhile, were producing at just 76.7 percent of their capacity as of June 15, a decline from 78.8 percent of capacity a year earlier, the Journal said.

Cost and Expertise

"The reason is partly because Chinese-made steel is cheaper," the article says, noting that U.S. steel producers have urged federal import restrictions to fight what they consider unfair Chinese subsidies.

More stinging, however, may the newspaper's other point: that there is a "relative scarcity of American contractors with expertise in specialized projects like bridges."

"Together," the newspaper says, "these two factors show why the U.S. is unlikely to completely swear off Chinese steel."

The two Chinese companies working on the Verrazano-Narrows project also worked on Alaska's Tanana River Bridge project.

Chinese Subcontractor

The article details how California-based Tutor Perini Corp., the general contractor for the $235.7 million Verrazano-Narrows repair project, subcontracted the fabrication of steel decks for the bridge to the China Railway Shanhaiguan Bridge Group.

Tanana River Project
Creative Commons / Mark Yashinsky

Two Chinese firms provided steel and services for Alaska's Tanana River Bridge project.

Tutor Perini's announcement of the contract did not mention that it would be using Chinese-made steel.

The New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA), which owns the bridge, "said it tried to find a contractor whose bid for the project included American steel, but there was only one such bidder, Structal-Bridges, and its bid was twice as high as Tutor Perini's, said MTA spokeswoman Judie Glave," the newspaper reported.

Price wasn't the only factor, however, Glave told the Journal. She said Chinese companies "have become specialists in making parts for bridges across the U.S."

Flat-Deck Specialty

Bill McEleney of the National Steel Bridge Alliance told the newspaper that not many U.S. companies were experienced with the flat-deck design being used to build or renovate many heavily trafficked bridges. The design is more common in China, where urban construction is booming.

"The Chinese are building many more of these kinds of bridges, so they have more fabricators," McEleney told the newspaper.

A division of the American Institute of Steel Construction, the National Steel Bridge Alliance represents "businesses and agencies interested in the development, promotion, and construction of cost-effective steel bridges."

Outcry over 'Misconceptions'

Now, however, the alliance is crying foul over what it calls the article's "misconceptions" about the steel industry and U.S. bridge expertise.

Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
U.S. Navy photo

The China Railway Shanhaiguan Bridge Group is using 15,000 tons of steel plate made by China's Anshan Iron & Steel Group on the $235.7 million Verrazano-Narrows Bridge repair project.

The group says the article draws too many conclusions from the Verrazano-Narrows project, "which features seldom-used orthotropic bridge deck design."

"As with most designs, orthotropic decks have their advantages and their disadvantages," the alliance said in a statement June 26. "While they are very lightweight, they also typically are highly labor intensive. As a result, these specialty systems are often very expensive to build."

Less than one bridge a year has been built in the U.S. with that design in the last 20 years, the bridge alliance said.

Meanwhile, it said, "the domestic bridge market is extremely robust, fabricating more than 700 steel bridges in 2012 alone."

'America's Signature Bridges'

The statement cited multiple examples of recent and current bridge projects in the U.S. that use domestic steel, adding: "The truth is that the domestic steel bridge industry has the capability to fabricate bridges to meet our nation's immediate needs as well as ample capacity to fabricate America's signature bridges."

Finally, the group says that more than cost is at stake.

"[W]hile some may try to paint this as simply a dollars-and-cents issue, the truth is the American steel bridge industry cares about the health, safety, and welfare of its workers," the alliance said.

"By awarding projects like the Verrazano-Narrows bridge to foreign competitors, we ignore wage, environmental impact, and safety standards that we demand for our own citizens. To accept anything less means accepting financial savings at the potential cost of human life.

Woodrow Wilson Bridge Woodrow Wilson Bridge
DSI America (left); Hardesty & Hanover (right)

The Woodrow Wilson Bridge outside Washington, D.C., is one of hundreds of steel bridge projects successfully undertaken and completed every year by U.S. firms, the National Steel Bridge Alliance says.

"Shouldn't the Chinese be held to the same standards if they are going to compete here in the United States?"

'Tofu Construction'

The article also touched off a fierce debate among Journal readers worldwide, sparking dozens of comments ranging from jabs over "tofu construction" to defenses of a free market.

"Quality of the steel is usually not of the same caliber," commented Douglas Singer. "Bought Chinese steel once to build the rotor of my brush shredder. It was crystallized and broke 15 days later. We had to start x-raying the steel before using it and the Chinese material normally failed. Scary to think of a bridge made with it."

Retorted Barrie Harrop: "Note in recent times non[e] of the US bridge collapses have been Chinese Steel."

To which Tobias Hlavinka replied: "Yes, but how old were they? And most of our older highways and bridges were never designed to carry the capacity and utilization rates we are seeing today."

Carl Castrogiovanni saw it this way: "You can buy good steel or poor quality steel from China. I'm not defending China's trade practices or Chinese imports, but it all depends on how much the buyer is willing to pay (and how much incoming QC they want to do)..."

But Aaron Brown's comments gained the most support. Brown accused the U.S. government of sitting "idly by while Chinese state-owned companies use their connections to Beijing to obtain cheap credit and subsidies."

"Infrastructure building should be done by domestic companies using mostly domestic products," said Brown.

He concluded: "The steel and infrastructure building industries are vital to this country and should not be abandoned like many others have been. They are strategic industries and if U.S. lawmakers had any sense at all they would make sure that they are not taken over by foreign companies."


Tagged categories: Bidding; Bridges; Business conditions; Construction; Government contracts; Steel

Comment from WAN MOHAMAD NOR WAN ABDUL RAHMAN, (7/5/2013, 6:32 AM)


Comment from josh hutcheson, (7/5/2013, 8:05 AM)

as long as we the stupid keep buying the imported junk we will continue to see americans lose their jobs and homes our goverment does not care if they cut corners and supply substandard materials just as long as they get their share god help us we dont stand a chance STOP BUYING JUNK

Comment from Billy Russell, (7/5/2013, 12:29 PM)

Way to go America, you simply Amaze me.

Comment from John Fauth, (7/8/2013, 8:26 AM)

It's not the government's job to keep people from buying junk. If there are unfair trade practices, that's one thing. But government is not your mommy, and should not keep individuals or companies from making "bad" choices in life.

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