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FBI looks into welds on bridge

April 7, 2005 Reposted from the Contra Costa Times
  By Mike Adamick

An FBI probe into the safety of the new Bay Bridge has lawmakers calling for better construction oversight while Caltrans and the contractor are fighting allegations of fraud and shoddy workmanship.

The federal investigation into potentially defective welds on support piles buried 300 feet into mud and muck comes as lawmakers are negotiating with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over paying for $3.6 billion in cost overruns on the $6.2 billion span.

The FBI says it is investigating claims by welders who said they were pressured into covering up unsafe welds on key supports of the new eastern span.

Lawmakers say the allegations raise questions about management of the project, a tact that could bolster their arguments that the state -- not just toll payers -- should cover soaring cost increases.

"I am concerned about the scope and severity of these allegations," said state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who chairs the transportation committee in the Legislature's upper house.

Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, wants lawmakers to convene an oversight committee to investigate whether the new bridge is safe, given the questions raised.

"There is a huge amount at stake -- from the possible misuse of tax money to the idea that we're not buying a seismically safe bridge," Hancock said. "This is a state, needless to say, that is without a dime to waste on anything."

The FBI criminal probe centers around claims of more than a dozen welders who said the bridge's contractor, a joint venture known as KFM, pressured them to conceal defective welds to speed up construction. They also alleged cash payouts were offered for speedy work. The allegations were first reported Wednesday in the Oakland Tribune, which interviewed some of the workers.

"The complaints consistently allege a pattern of substandard welds affecting a number of pilings intended to support the new eastern span," special agent Mark Mershon said in a prepared statement released Wednesday.

About $1 million of federal money has been sunk into the new bridge, so federal agents are investigating whether the contractor provided "fraudulent services."

Caltrans, which oversees KFM, denied the claims, saying some welders were disgruntled after being fired or laid off.

"It's hogwash, and it's flat-out lies," said Phil Stolarski, a manager who oversees welding inspectors at the bridge site. "The documentation we have does not match up with the allegations. And we literally get our butts out there for inspections -- we don't just produce paper."

In a 13-month period from February 2004 to last month, Caltrans discovered 15 instances of welds that did not conform to standards -- out of thousands of welds for the project. All 15 welding sections were fixed, Stolarski said.

In one instance, a quality control inspector for KFM was demoted by Caltrans officials to a less technical position, following several instances of work that did not conform to standards, Stolarski said.

FBI officials would not delve into specifics of the allegations, saying only the investigation is "a very important priority."

Neither the welders at the heart of the controversy nor officials with KFM could be reached for comment. However, KFM released a statement saying that all welds are tested and reviewed by third-party inspectors.

"These state-of-the-art measures are employed daily on every critical weld to ensure that our work on the Bay Bridge project is in full compliance with all contract specifications," KFM spokesman Tom Janssen said.

Janssen also said KFM's worker safety standards exceed state requirements -- a statement supported by California Department of Industrial Relations spokesman Dean Fryer.

"They've got a clean safety record with few injuries for this type of work," Fryer said.

At the center of the latest Bay Bridge controversy are 160 steel piles that are designed to support pier foundations for the "skyway" portion of the new span. Each pile has two pieces -- a 100-foot section and a 200-foot section -- that were welded together.

Caltrans officials said the piles would not have to be taken apart or dug up for inspection, because the agency has more than 300,000 pages of documents showing that each weld is safe and structurally sound.

"These piles are 300 feet long and filled with concrete and steel rebar -- you can't access them to do an inspection at this time, but all of the documents show before they went down that they met the requirements," said Bijan Sartipi, head of the Caltrans Bay Area office.


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