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Bay Bridge welding probed

April 7, 2005 Reposted from the Sacramento Bee
  By Herbert A. Sample and Tony Bizjak

FBI checks workers' reports of uncorrected flaws on new span.

The construction of a new eastern span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, already beleaguered by huge cost overruns and political squabbling, suffered another blow Wednesday when a federal investigation into possibly faulty welds was revealed.

The FBI is examining the assertions of 15 welders who, in an article in the Oakland Tribune on Wednesday, contended they made substandard welds, which were not corrected, inside the pilings that would support the new span's roadway.

The structural integrity of the 1.5-mile-long skyway - under construction alongside the original, 68-year-old span - could be compromised if the welders' allegations turn out to be true.

At least one state lawmaker suggested that bridge work should be halted until the investigation ends.

The FBI on Wednesday delivered at least one subpoena to the state Department of Transportation that seeks records and asks that personnel be made available for interviews, according to Bijan Sartipi, District 4 director for Caltrans.

Sartipi voiced confidence in the thousands of welds that have been performed. Nonetheless, he said that more than 300,000 pages of documents on the welds, including records of ultrasound tests, will be re-examined.

"We are building this bridge in a safe manner," Sartipi said at a press conference outside the agency's Oakland district office. "We're satisfied with the welding operation that is going on on that contract."

Will Kempton, director of Caltrans, also declined to answer questions and instead issued a letter in which he echoed Sartipi's comments. He noted that welds are inspected by two dozen workers - Caltrans employees and those of quality-control firms hired by Caltrans and the prime contractor.

Later Wednesday, Caltrans' top expert on welding called the allegations of slipshod work "a bunch of hogwash," and contended the welders were seeking retribution for being laid off when the bridge's construction went ahead of schedule.

"Our documentation and inspection practices don't flange up with what we're being accused of," said Phil Stolarski, deputy division chief for materials, engineering and testing services at Caltrans. "My speculation is ... that you've got some disgruntled employees."

Stolarski said he and at least one other Caltrans official are to be questioned today by federal agents.

The welders could not be reached for comment. According to the Tribune, welders who worked different shifts and at various points during construction, alleged that employees were pressured by supervisors to conceal bad welds.

The welders told the Tribune of cash bonuses paid, but only when there were no reports of injuries or weld repairs. Several welders also said they watched supervisors bully state and privately contracted inspectors.

In a statement, Mark Mershon, the FBI special agent in charge in San Francisco, said the investigation started after a telephone call to the agency's corruption hotline. No one has been charged, and the inspectors general at the U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of Labor also are involved, he said.

Mershon said the Tribune postponed publication of its story "so that the FBI could pursue sensitive and sophisticated investigative techniques with respect to this investigation."

A representative of Kiewit Pacific, one of the contractors, would not say whether his company has been contacted by the FBI and declined to discuss the welders' charges.

"We've complied fully with all specifications and standards, and all work is subject to inspection and review by independent third-party inspectors and the state of California," said Kiewit spokesman Jerry Pfeffer. "This is state-of-the-art kind of stuff. And I can tell you that, after safety, quality is one of our most important criteria."

Kiewit is a partner in KFM Joint Venture, the bridge's prime contractor, which includes FCI Constructors of San Jose and Manson Construction Co. of Seattle.

The news of the FBI inquiry rocked legislators already confronted with bridge-related problems. They are under pressure to act on the skyrocketing cost of the bridge, to find a way to finance those expenses and to resolve a dispute with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger over the design of the last portion of the span.

"The legislators that I talked to were stunned," said Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley.

For months last year, Democratic legislators and the governor disagreed over Schwarzenegger's plan to alter the design of a 2,100-foot bridge section that would connect the skyway to Yerba Buena Island and the bridge's western span.

However, aides last month signaled he was more concerned about financing than design.

The total cost of the new four-mile-plus bridge is now estimated at $6.2 billion, $300 million more than the figure offered last August. In 2001, the cost was pegged at $2.6 billion.

In addition, the state auditor late last year accused Caltrans of hiding cost overruns and mismanaging the project. Caltrans denied the charges.

Hancock said a small task force of legislators should be named to consider halting all work on the bridge until the FBI concludes its investigation.

Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, D-Alameda, in whose district the eastern end of the bridge touches down, said she wants Caltrans to quickly inspect the welds to check the allegations.

"The administration and Caltrans have botched the whole project," she said. "I don't see any reason why these workers would lie about this."

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