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State aids FBI probe of welds on bridge - Work stoppage for inspection costs $400,000 a day

April 9, 2005 Reposted from the San Francisco Chronicle
By Jim Herron Zamora

State officials from the governor on down said Friday that they would cooperate with the FBI probe of allegations that the foundation of the new Bay Bridge eastern span is riddled with shoddy welds.

Caltrans ordered contractors Thursday to stop pouring concrete on the last four foundations under construction on the skyway portion of the span until state and federal inspectors re-examine some of the welding work in question. The contractors also stopped any new welding, Caltrans said.

The reinspection by the Federal Highway Administration is expected to take place next week. The work stoppage will cost at least $400,000 a day, Caltrans said, and could total more if the rechecking drags on. Other delays have already forced the cost of the bridge up to $6.2 billion.

"These are serious allegations, and we're taking them very seriously," Caltrans Director Will Kempton said at a news conference Friday in Oakland. "We want to assure the public that the bridge is safe."

Kempton's boss, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, also vowed full cooperation with the federal government in a radio interview broadcast Friday.

The FBI has not discussed details of its investigation, but Kempton said Caltrans has 300,000 pages of records relating to the welding and construction that it will make available to investigators.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers, including state Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, said they planned to hold hearings into allegations that welders were forced by contractor KFM to cover up faulty welds to deceive inspectors.

The claims by 15 welders on the project were reported this week by the Oakland Tribune. The FBI said it had also received a complaint on its government corruption hot line. The workers raised doubts about the quality of more than 5,000 complex welds in structural steel that holds the bridge up and anchors the span into the ground below the bay.

Kempton said Caltrans had learned of the FBI investigation only this week but had known of the issues raised by welders earlier. The agency did not find the welders' complaints credible and chose not to notify state lawmakers, Kempton said.

"We have certainly not encountered any problems in the process," Kempton said. "I didn't see any reason for us to overreact."

The state has used 24 inspectors on the project, with 16 examining the work as it is performed and eight more reviewing it afterward. All the inspectors are either employed by a private contractor, MACTECH Engineering and Consulting of San Diego, or are outside consultants.

The skyway portion of the new eastern span consists of two parallel bridges for east- and westbound traffic, each 1 1/2 miles long.

The alleged problems in welding occurred in portions of the 28 piers that are anchored into the bottom of the bay. Each pier is the foundation for a column that will hold up part of the skyway. So far, 24 of the 28 piers' foundations have been completed.

The welders' allegations concern work in an undetermined number of the 160 300-foot-long steel piles that were driven into rock below the bay floor and into the pile head, which links four to six piles into the base of each pier. All but four of those piers are completed, and the welds have been covered up with concrete, so authorities rely on inspections that were performed earlier.

Peter Siegenthaler, Caltrans manager for the project, said he was confident the work will withstand scrutiny. But if problems are found, he said, "we will do whatever we have to do fix them" -- even if that means rebuilding part of the bridge.

KFM is a joint venture of Kiewit Pacific Co., FCI Constructors Inc. and Manson Construction Co. The main company, Kiewit, defended its work Wednesday. KFM released a statement Friday denying anything was wrong.

"We are investigating the allegations that were reported, and are also cooperating fully with authorities. We are confident that those investigations will show that the allegations are without merit," said KFM spokesman Dave Hyams.

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