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Bay Bridge welds focus of FBI probe - Bridge safety questioned following workers' allegations

April 6, 2005 Reposted from the Oakland Tribune
  By Sean Holstege and Jill Tucker


The new Bay Bridge is riddled with defective welds, 15 welders told the Oakland Tribune in a nine-month investigation - allegations that could lead to criminal fraud charges.

The welders' claims have prompted an FBI investigation. In the worst case, the federal probe could lead to tearing apart the bridge to see if it is structurally sound or needs to be rebuilt.

The FBI began investigating allegations in February that welders were "encouraged or instructed to save time by producing substandard welds, "said FBI Special Agent in Charge Mark Mershon of the bureau's San Francisco division.

The bureau is investigating whether contractor KFM Joint Venture provided"fraudulent services in exchange for federal contract dollars," Mershon said this week.

The new span is the largest public works project in California history. The state is spending $6.2 billion to replace the vulnerable 68-year-old bridge between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island with one that would likely stay open after the most violent earthquakes. Every day, 282,000 cars cross the bridge.

The allegations involve the first part of the new bridge, a $1.5 billion skyway held up by 160 steel legs. Each leg is riddled with weak welds, because some supervisors ordered welders to hide defects, workers told the Oakland Tribune.

Several welders in interviews estimated one-third of the 5,280 welds in these legs, or piles, may be substandard. Almost all are now encased in concrete even as contractor KFM, according to several Capitol sources, is aggressively lobbying Sacramento to finish

the bridge — a contract worth $5 billion more. Welders still on the job said in interviews KFM has promised them part of that work.

In interviews or in testimony, welders describe a skyway worksite where KFM paid cash bonuses to hurry the job, leading to shoddy work and injury cover-ups.

The KFM construction team must pay Caltrans $80,000 for every day the work is late beyond 1,000 days. The skyway is now about three-quarters done and on schedule. Until then, every day costs contractors at least $280,000 in overhead, whether work gets done or not. If KFM finishes early, the joint venture keeps the money.

Together, Caltrans and Cal-OSHA oversee work quality and worker safety on the job. Both said welders' allegations have no merit and that the new skyway and workplace conditions there are safe.

"We've got good welds, good procedures and everything is in place to have a quality product. If a defect got in, we can't find it," said Caltrans project manager Pete Siegenthaler.

Caltrans project engineer Doug Coe said a 5 percent defect rate is standard. On a high-quality job, firms make mistakes — all corrected — about 2 percent to 3 percent of the time. On the Bay Bridge piles, KFM's error rate is 1 percent, Coe said.

"We think we have some of the best welding we've seen in the industry," he added, noting that for a defect to get past a system of checks and independent double-checks, inspectors for the contractor would have to commit fraud and Caltrans inspectors would have to miss obvious physical evidence.

"We think that's not a reasonable thing to happen," Coe said.

Lead contractor Kiewit Pacific Co., in a prepared statement, said the work was "in full compliance with all contract specifications."

But 15 welders from different shifts, who worked at the start, middle and end of the job, tell a different story.

Some company workers ordered faulty welds covered up — ones with cracks, bubbles or cavities — while they badgered inspectors into turning a blind eye, welders said in interviews with the FBI and the Tribune.

KFM paid employees monthly cash bonuses for early completion, but only when there were no reports of injury or weld repairs, according to welders, the FBI and a worksite document. Supervisors and welders were given $200 to $600 in $100 bills, tucked in envelopes.

Kiewit laid off or fired welders, including an entire night crew, who complained about workplace safety or quality, according to testimony from several welders in an arbitration hearing in a layoff dispute.

The arbitration panel ruled late last month that KFM legally let the night crew go to improve efficiency.

The federal probe, which includes inspectors general at the Transportation and Labor departments, began with a call to the bureau's toll-free tip line in early February, Mershon said.

The Tribune contacted the FBI in March to confirm the existence of a federal probe. Mershon agreed to discuss limited details of the FBI probe if agents had time to gather sensitive evidence, "that would otherwise not have been available."

Mershon declined to disclose the scope of the probe. "I will tell you it's a very important priority with us."

Stringent specifications

Kiewit spokesman Tom Janssen, in a brief prepared statement on behalf of the firm and its two partners, FCI Constructors Inc., and Manson Construction Co., rejected all the allegations.

"KFM's welding on the Bay Bridge is performed in compliance with stringent Caltrans specifications, as well as the American Welding Society codes," Janssen stated. "Critical welds are performed by certified, experienced union welders that are approved by Caltrans. The professional welds are extensively inspected... by Caltrans, KFM's quality department and an outside third party inspector."

The quality of Bay Bridge welds is checked by Inspection Services Inc., or ISI, based in San Francisco. KFM hired the firm to inspect

 its work, as allowed by state law. Caltrans had its own inspectors and hired quality control inspectors as well from MACTEC Inc. ISI Vice President Edward King did not return three calls seeking comment.

As of Tuesday, KFM had asked for 329 critical weld repairs on the piles — four a week — Caltrans logs show.

Caltrans keeps about 330,000 pages of records documenting the welding operation, enough to fill three industrial storage boxes. Reviewing a sampling of several hundred of those pages shows inspectors routinely rejected defects. Records indicated repairs were ordered, and the work was re-inspected visually, by magnetic powder or ultrasound. Repairs were then approved and certified by KFM, Caltrans, their inspectors and lab technicians, the records show.

"If I, in quality assurance, discover the process is not being followed, I can go and find out exactly where," said MACTEC vice president James Merrill. He said welders were not trained to judge the quality of welds.

Pressured to conceal

But Bay Bridge welders said they were pressured by some supervisors to conceal bad welds in a way that could fool the inspectors' tests. They said they covered cracks and bubbles — which are common in production welding — with enough metal to pass inspection.

"One time I know Caltrans saw something that needed repairs," said veteran pile driver Aaron Cushman, who is no longer on the job."I just fixed the top of it and Caltrans signed off."

"Even on critical weld repairs, we covered them over with new weld," foreman Angel Leon told the Tribune, recalling one occasion when a KFM welding supervisor told him to disappear while he was waiting for an inspector. "I was told: 'Angel, don't you have something to do? We don't want to get you involved if people ask questions later."

Leon said he complied, and requests to move ahead without fixing mistakes were common. He added some supervisors"told us we didn't have to wait for ISI inspectors."

He said he's never seen so many defects on a project in his 20-year career. Laid off in January as the welding operation tapered off, Leon recalled the view of the 68-year-old bridge from his breezy work site under the enormous red construction cranes.

"When I'd look from the new bridge to old," the 45-year-old Leon said, "it gave me the feeling that the old bridge is safer than the one we're building."

'In the hole'

The welders approached the Tribune after the newspaper's June report indicating the construction company knowingly exposed its workers to high levels of poisonous manganese fumes for a year.

Some welders spoke on condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation "in the hole" where some still work. Others don't want to jeopardize pending workers' compensation or discrimination claims.

Still others feared being blackballed from future work, including one man who said union officials told him he'd be committing "career suicide" bad-mouthing Kiewit publicly.

A large group of welders - including those named in this story - as well as other bridge workers have hired a lawyer for worker's compensation cases and in preparation of a lawsuit against KFM over the manganese exposure.

Welding instructors and bridge engineers say that while workers on big construction jobs notoriously grumble, the number and consistency of complaints have to be taken seriously.

In March 2004 workers sent a certified letter to Kiewit's corporate headquarters in Omaha, Neb., and warned, "We are increasingly under pressure to perform... substandard quality work."

Welders said some supervisors continued to tell them to adjust the automated welding machines used on the Bay Bridge to the wrong temperature and speed settings. They call this"welding out of parameters."

This made the work move faster.

"We were instructed to run within parameters only when there was a welding inspector there," said one foreman."We were instructed to throw (bad) welds in there, and it makes it brittle. That's the reason for the parameters."

Engineers familiar with the Bay Bridge design say the area where the steel piles are fused to the footing are the most important for the safety of the entire structure.

The significance of defects such as bubbles, or porosity, varies depending on the type and location of a weld.

"Any kind of anomaly or defect in a tension weld will have more effect on a structure because of the seismic conditions. On tension welds, the forces want to pull the weld apart," said MACTEC's Merrill.

On other welds, "you can have quite a bit of porosity and still be acceptable. There are standards by which they are cleared," said Merrill, explaining many structures around the country perform perfectly even though they were built before science learned how to limit porosity.

He and Caltrans' materials testing chief, Phil Stolarski, say welders are not trained to know the different kinds.

But for the FBI, contractors' drive for speed raises safety questions.

"The welds would have to be performed within certain standards, and it takes a certain amount of time to do that. Logically, if there's a specification that hasn't been met, that would be a concern," said the bureau's Mershon.

He said the extent of any substandard work would need to be determined by a "professional engineering assessment."

Workers said they were told to speed up as deadline pressures kicked in, and did the work in half or one-third the time. They said this was done by reducing the number of "passes," or times the automated welding machine zig-zagged back and forth to form a weld.

Welding too fast or  at the wrong temperatures leaves behind bubbles or cracks in the steel piles that hold up the bridge. Some cracks were so big - nearly 20 inches long - welders took to calling them"smiley faces."

Caltrans inspection records call them "smileys."

According to contract specifications, defects need to be dug out with an arc-welding torch and re-welded. Key Caltrans records suggest repairs on were done on all defective welds.

But Bay Bridge welders interviewed said in many cases they instead poured more metal over the defects to save time, and the work passed the inspection system.

"These guys were putting in trash and covering it up, "said one welder." They traded off quality for production."

Several welders said in interviews such mistakes were cleared because they watched some Kiewit supervisors bully state and privately contracted inspectors.

Caltrans disputed the allegation in a prepared statement reviewed by its lawyers. "We have had an excellent working relationship with the contractor's staff," Caltrans said. "Overwhelmingly, they have worked in a professional manner and they have not attempted to persuade us to accept welds that do not meet industry standards."

Difficult to verify

Without breaking apart finished concrete foundations, there is currently no easy way to verify or dismiss the welders' claims.

Bay Bridge workers took photos of what they call suspect welds. At the Tribune's request, two professional welders whose livelihoods do not depend on the bridge job examined the photos and saw evidence of such defects as porosity, the process that creates a Swiss-cheese effect in an area of bubbles.

Depending on the nature and location of faulty welds, the bridge may be strong enough to survive a major quake, said one engineer familiar with the Bay Bridge project. But given the number of welder allegations and the consistency of their stories, the safety of the bridge "could potentially be a problem."

If the FBI finds hard evidence of faulty welds, the defects may be so serious the work might have to be halted and the bridge started over. The mistakes should be fixed or, at a minimum, California taxpayers should be compensated for buying one bridge and getting something less, the bridge engineer said.

It wouldn't be the first time California got shortchanged because of shoddy welding.

Caltrans discovered faulty welds in 1995 on reinforcing bar during construction of concrete columns on the Interstate 8/805 interchange in San Diego. Subsequently, Caltrans found welding discrepancies on about 300 bridges statewide, including an elevated freeway through San Francisco.

The bad welds were detected by comparing X-ray images and a large number were faulty or missing, Caltrans later reported. Caltrans originally was duped because at that time welding  contractors could hire their own inspectors. A San Leandro-based X-ray technician was convicted on fraud charges and jailed for his role in the deception.

Afterward, Caltrans concluded most of the structures were still safe, based on statistical models. Hundreds of thousands of people drive over them every day.

Little training

Back at the skyway site, the pile welding operation is winding down. Welders on the job say they've been told to speed up again. And they've seen people learning their craft on the steel that holds up the bridge. "We used to do 40 to 50 hours of practice on the mock-up or in training. Now I notice new people hired straight off the street. In half a day, they're working on the bridge, "said one current welder. "They'll bring in a new guy with little or no training. Their practice is this multi-billion-dollar bridge. It's scary."

Caltrans dismissed this allegation.

"All of the welders working on the Bay Bridge project meet qualification requirements, "the agency's statement said.

For journeymen welders, it's another reason why the thrill of a lifetime - working on a historical project - has soured.

Anooshiravan Jadali testified in arbitration hearings that projects like the original Depression-era Bay Bridge lured him from native Iran.

"I was... proud of those people. That's why I came to do the Bay Bridge, because it was an honor for me. And they (KFM) didn't take it serious. They take it is a joke," he testified.

"A while ago we were told - I don't know if it's true - they would put a plate up with all the names of the people who built this bridge. We got excited about that," said Angel Leon, the ex-foreman.

"This was supposed to be something good for working people in the Bay Area. It became a nightmare," he said. He stared into the clouds brewing in his coffee at a downtown Oakland cafe, and sighed. "Now we say 'I don't want my name on it.'"

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