Squeezed inside an enclosed box , a welder works in scorching conditions to join two steel legs that support the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge.
A supervisor working for the contractor checks the crucial first weld, followed by an independent inspector required to test the weld within 30 minutes.
Another inspector hired by Caltrans reviews the initial inspector's paperwork to make sure everything is OK. The Caltrans-hired inspector also randomly checks about 10 percent of the welds.
If substandard welds exist on the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, the work would have slipped by a chain of foremen, supervisors, two independent inspectors and as many as 10 state engineers, Caltrans officials say.
Welding fraud has happened on previous, smaller projects -- but Caltrans officials say the new $6.2 billion Bay Bridge swarms with too many people, too many new restrictions and too many risks for faulty welds to pass unnoticed.
"I don't even want to speculate on the kind of collusion that would be needed to pull it off," said Phil Stolarski, a Caltrans manager in charge of welding inspections.
Welders on the $1.5 billion skyway portion of the new Bay Bridge claimed supervisors for contractor KFM forced them to conceal slipshod, unsafe work to speed up construction -- allegations under investigation by the FBI and the state Attorney General's Office.
Caltrans, the project manager, said too many checks and balances are in place for that to occur -- especially considering state welding practices have been overhauled during the past decade after fraud was discovered in the late 1990s on freeway work.
In that case, the tests and paperwork showed to superiors were copies of a single good test. Since then, the state has set new protocols to stop fraud -- including time-stamped tests and requirements for independent inspectors.
More than a dozen people, from the welders themselves to their supervisors and inspectors, would have to be part of a conspiracy to cover up shoddy welds and then to cover up records, Caltrans officials said.
Yet former welders on the project maintain that supervisors told them to ignore defects and that supervisors bullied third-party inspectors to sign off on faulty work. Many also claimed they were laid off because they raised safety issues -- allegations that an independent arbitrator rejected in late March.
"Right now, everything is under investigation and we will wait until we get a green light to make a comment," said Angel Leon, a Union City resident and former welding foreman who made some of the allegations.
He said welders contacted the FBI to discuss safety issues, such as exposure to welding fumes.
"We complained more about the safety situation than the quality of welds," Leon said. "For them (the FBI), it was more important to find out the quality of the welds."
The FBI did not respond to calls. An earlier FBI statement said the complaints "consistently allege a pattern of substandard welds."
Leon said the FBI investigation will back up the allegations.
"All I can tell you is almost everything we say, we're going to find a way to prove it -- if they look in the right places, they'll find (defects)," Leon said, maintaining he has records. He declined to show them to the Times or say whether he gave them to the FBI.
Caltrans inspectors and welders said that defective welds are discovered, carved out and replaced with quality welds -- a process backed up by more than 300,000 welding records.
Joining together Bay Bridge support piles or attaching them to foundations at the water line starts with a thin, initial weld. Called a "root pass," it measures less than a quarter-inch thick and is considered a critical weld.
If it is structurally sound, the welds above it should follow suit. Flaws tend to multiply as more work is done, experts and former welders said.
"I'll never say anything good about KFM, but never did I see a foreman or a supervisor or an inspector, especially an inspector, condone anything -- you had to stop and gouge it out and start again," said Wayne Nunes, a Livermore resident and former bridge welder.
Because of the importance of the weld, visual and magnetic particle tests are done on each root pass, Caltrans inspectors said. The particle tests can see cracks a quarter-inch below the surface -- about the same size as the root pass itself. More thorough X-rays or ultrasound tests are not done because the root pass is too thin and welding codes don't require them, Stolarski said.
Some welders said supervisors told them to cap off faulty welds with cleaner work to fool inspectors, but Caltrans inspectors said records show that problems with root passes were corrected. There was no need for X-ray tests as the welds grew thicker, because problems were cut off at the root pass and more tests confirmed the work, Stolarski said.
Most of the 160 steel legs are already buried in 300 feet of water and muck in the Bay. Crews poured concrete over most of them to create foundations for the new bridge. Without digging down to check, Caltrans can't review those welds. Inspectors and the FBI are relying on the 300,000 welding records to review those areas.
Four foundations remain accessible, and work there has halted until Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration can check the welds.
Independent inspectors plan to conduct the same tests done when the welds were made -- visual and magnetic particle tests. They don't plan on using X-ray or ultrasound tests, which can see through the welds. Rather, inspectors will remove suspect weld areas, cut them into 6-inch slices and study the cross sections.
Stolarski said the cross-section tests should be available within a week, although costs were not available.
"This is going to put to sleep these allegations," Stolarski said. "If you talk about going deep, we're going to go as deep as you can get, brother -- we're going to take those welds out."
Q: How did the FBI investigation begin?
A: The FBI unveiled its Bay Area Public Corruption Hotline on Feb. 2.
Some welders called the hotline to talk about safety conditions on the bridge project. A former welding foreman who called the hotline said the FBI was more interested in allegations of faulty welds than safety conditions.
Q: Where are these allegedly faulty welds?
A: The 1.3-mile skyway has 28 foundations, each supported by six to eight 300-foot-long steel piles -- almost like the legs of a chair.
Each leg -- 160 in all -- has a 200-foot section and a 100-foot section that must be welded together. Some welders say that some legs have faulty welds. They also say faulty welds were made at the top of the leg, where it meets the foundation.
Twenty-four of 28 foundations were built before the FBI investigation began. Work has stopped on the remaining four.
Q: So how will welds be checked?
ACaltrans and the Federal Highway Administration are examining welds on the four nonfilled foundations. They plan to remove some welds, cut them up and study the cross sections. To check welds on areas that have already been filled with concrete, Caltrans is examining more than 300,000 welding records, which the FBI has also subpoenaed.
Q: If pile welds are deemed faulty, how much would it cost to fix them?
A: It depends on where the welds are.
Caltrans has declined to release cost estimates. Welds below the waterline would be expensive. Some welds at the top of the legs have not yet been coated in concrete.
Independent welding and construction experts said that it cost $750 million per foundation to fix similar problems on deep-sea oil rigs in Australia two years ago.
Q: So how much is all this costing?
AWelding work has stopped on the foundations, at a cost of $80,000 per day. The contractor can file a claim for payment with Caltrans. The Federal Highway Administration is paying for welding inspections, but has not provided a cost estimate. Independent experts pegged the cost at between $10,000 to $15,000 per day for staff and materials costs.
Q: Has construction stopped on the bridge?
A: Yes and no. The contractor stopped welding work during the review, and Caltrans has halted concrete work. Other jobs continue, such as work on the deck sections. Each day, $1 million is spent building the bridge, so most of the work continues as planned.
Q: When will the welding tests be complete?
A: Caltrans and the Federal Highway Administration expect preliminary findings on the cross-section tests by next week, with a final report due in two weeks.
Q: When will the Bay Bridge be finished?
A: Current estimates peg the opening at 2012. However, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature are battling over the design of and who will pay for the "main span" portion -- a 2,000-foot section. Each side claims the other's design could stall the opening, although independent estimates say that both designs can be built by 2012.