7/22/2014

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Former inspector: New 520 Bridge 'a disaster waiting to happen'

Former inspector: New 520 Bridge 'a disaster waiting to happen'

SEATTLE -- Stunning new allegations have surfaced about the construction of the 520 Floating Bridge.  A former inspector says the quality of the first pontoons built in Aberdeen was so shoddy that it's a "disaster waiting to happen." 

At the same time, a scathing internal audit shows the state failed to hold contractor Kiewit accountable.

"To me it's just a disaster; it's a disaster waiting to happen," said the former inspector, who wants to remain anonymous.

The man was an onsite quality inspector at Kiewit Construction's pontoon casting basin in Aberdeen last winter. 

"I won't drive across that bridge when they have it built," he said.

He was there during construction of the first six massive concrete pontoons designed to hold up the new 520 bridge.  

"Why would you drive across something that you know might fail?  You know? It's a danger factor," he said.

The inspector was part of a Quality Assurance subcontractor team, O'Neill Environmental, hired by contractor Kiewit to ensure correct pontoon construction.  The QA, as it's called, is required by the state Department of Transportation's (WSDOT) contract with Kiewit.

He's been an inspector for 10 years.  "It's the worst I've been on - for inferior work," he said.

Our inspector confirmed what two expert insiders had previously told the Problem Solvers -- that construction of the first pontoons was so shoddy, it undermines the structural integrity and safety of the new 520 bridge. 

Our inspector says every day he saw iron-workers mis-placing or using the wrong-sized rebar; that's the structural steel that provides the strength and framework of the pontoons. 

"Rebar not having the correct clearances, rebar being out of place, bars being missing," he said, adding, "It's not correct and it should not be signed off." 

He said contractor Kiewit routinely poured massive walls of concrete to form the pontoons when conditions should have prevented pouring.  When conditions were too wet: "They pour in such heavy rains and standing water that that the cement is literally being washed out of the concrete." 

He said they also poured concrete when conditions were too cold and the re-bar was frozen. 

"It shocks the concrete - and there'll be a circumference around the rebar with weak and inferior concrete," he said.

A WSDOT internal document called a Risk Register and dated August 22, 2012, even says concrete cracking in pontoons is an issue is caused by Kiewit not following the plan for curing or hardening concrete - particularly during cold weather- and that it could potentially cost as much as $3 million.

Inspectors are supposed to write up such work in what's called Non-Compliance or Non-Conformance Reports; NCR's. 

"A few times I went to write up non-compliances and I was actually reprimanded by my boss," our inspector said.

The inspector says he was one of several inspectors ultimately laid off -- not fired.  And he said he was told it was at Kiewit's demand because he wouldn't sign off on inferior work. 

"I'm not going to put my name on something that might get somebody killed or hurt.  It's just not going to happen," he said.

We asked both Kiewit and WSDOT last Wednesday about the inspector's allegations.  WSDOT has still never answered us. Instead, by chance, we found a posting on their web page calling the inspector's allegations "vague" and referencing Kiewit's Quality Management Plan.

Kiewit spokesman Tom Janssen in an e-mail said, "while we take all claims very seriously, we cannot respond to vague, non-specific and unsubstantiated allegations."

However, many of the issues raised by the inspector are substantiated in a scathing internal audit produced by WSDOT's own Engineers, which the Problem Solvers obtained through a public records request. 

That audit found a "... pattern of noncompliance and failure to implement corrective action" on the part of Kiewit.  And that WSDOT "failed to hold the contractor accountable." Also see the audit report supplemental information document.

Our inspector:  "Kiewit is so big and powerful, WSDOT can't stand up to 'em."  And, "Kiewit actually pushes WSDOT around."

The audit focused specifically on problems with concrete poured during cold weather and how concrete cured -- or hardened.  Both affect how much the concrete will crack and according to what are called Crack Maps of the first pontoons -- all six experienced significant cracking. 

Though Kiewit has undertaken several rounds of repairs of these pontoons, WSDOT confirmed last week that the four largest are still leaking.  They plan to begin another round of repairs early next year.

In WSDOT's online posting called "A response to KOMO," WSDOT says KOMO needs to, "understand ... there is a rigorous quality program."  But the audit cited that exact program, noting NCR report after report after report -- 42 total --  where Kiewit and WSDOT failed to follow plans to produce good concrete and failed to solve the recurring problems.

The inspector: "It's criminal in my book.  Somebody up there needs to do a little jail time, 'cause they're, they're stealing money from the taxpayers."

Monday afternoon Kiewit responded to our questions about the audit in a second e-mail which says, in part, "A rigorous and redundant quality management system...ensures that any quality issues or concerns are identified...and addressed to guarantee a safe, structurally sound bridge."  It continues, " the extensive quality system involves multiple inspections ... "and, "... no single inspector is responsible for oversight."

Last week, WSDOT's 520 Bridge Program Manager reiterated that WSDOT stands by Kiewit and says the pontoons will last 75 years.  Late Monday afternoon WSDOT e-mailed us about the audit saying it, "does not speak to the quality of the finished product." 

And that "WSDOT is confident  that by addressing the recommendations of the expert review panel and correcting any process shortcomings identified by WSDOT's audit, there will be improvements in cycle 2 and beyond."  

However the Problem Solvers have also just confirmed that some concrete in the Cycle 2 Pontoons is already cracking.

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