Witnesses tell lawmakers Caltrans compromised quality in Bay Bridge construction

01/24/2014 4:36 PM

03/14/2014 12:50 PM

Former quality control managers for the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge told a legislative committee Friday that Tony Anziano, head of the $6.4 billion project, pushed to compromise on quality in a rush to complete the long-delayed project.

The witnesses, including a senior California Department of Transportation bridge engineer and a former top quality-control contractor, said Anziano tried to intimidate some subordinates and warned engineers to avoid writing down bad news about construction problems – an apparent effort, they said, to deter later public disclosure.

The witnesses warned that numerous cracked welds in the suspension span, built by a Chinese contractor, could require costly repairs in coming years but said the structure probably does not represent a public safety hazard.

Anziano and Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty disputed the allegations, originally described in a Senate report released Wednesday, in their own testimony in a contentious hearing before the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

“You are always better off with the most documentation you can get, but please make sure it is accurate,” Anziano said. “I never told any of these individuals to avoid putting things in writing” to prevent public disclosure.

Committee chairman Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, told the officials that their responses were unconvincing in comparison with those who alleged wrongdoing. The witnesses included Douglas Coe, a senior Caltrans bridge engineer; Jim Merrill, a contractor who formally oversaw much of the quality control for the new span; and Michael Morgan, a Caltrans engineering geologist.

“The most serious of these charges … is that there’s been a deliberate and willful – my words – attempt to obfuscate what is happening to the public,” DeSaulnier said.

Looking at Anziano and Dougherty, DeSaulnier said, “sitting here today ... I don’t believe you. And I don’t believe that the public has the greatest confidence in what you’ve said. ... The larger issue is how we can restore confidence, collectively, to the Department of Transportation.”

DeSaulnier challenged the witnesses, at times warning that they could be placed under oath. Dougherty initially refused to answer directly when asked if mistakes were made on the new span. But DeSaulnier pressed the matter.

“There have to have been mistakes made,” Dougherty finally said.

Despite “differing engineering opinions,” Dougherty said, “we have achieved seismic safety for the bridge ... it is safe” and will meet its 150-year design life with no sacrifice of quality.

Much of the testimony focused on allegations of compromised quality control that witnesses attributed to a priority on speeding completion of the span, which was billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule.

Merrill, a metallurgist and engineer whose former firm, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc. oversaw welding work in China from 2006 through 2008, said he became troubled when he saw numerous cracked welds – a violation of the contract and welding code. The work was done by Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. on an island off Shanghai.

In a 2008 letter to Peter E. Siegenthaler, who headed the project in China for Caltrans, Merrill said he “strongly recommended that we not go forward,” until the welding problems could be solved. Siegenthaler overruled his objections.

Merrill’s assertions largely were corroborated by Philip Stolarski, Caltrans deputy division chief for materials engineering and testing, who said he directed Merrill to write the letter.

“I was specially directed (by Siegenthaler) not to look in areas where there were cracks,” Merrill said. Soon after, his company was replaced by another quality control contractor, Alta Vista Solutions. Siegenthaler joined Alta Vista as a vice president in 2011.

Coe, who worked for the department in quality control on the China job in 2008, was asked if he thought Merrill was pressing the Chinese to meet unduly rigorous standards. Coe called Merrill’s work normal and prudent.

“There’s nothing rigorous about meeting the contact specifications. You either meet them or you don’t,” he said. And in this case, he added, he was alarmed by thousands of cracks in the welds, which can grow under the pressure of traffic and seismic strains, resulting in costly maintenance work.

Asked by DeSaulnier if Siegenthaler’s direction to keep production on track despite the cracks was unusual, Coe said, “It’s never happened in my experience before.”

Coe said he was alarmed to learn that some bridge panels had been shipped without adequate evaluation. He said he told a top bridge manager for Caltrans, Ken Terpstra, “I need you guys to know that these segments that are going over to Oakland may be full of defects.”

In a teleconference soon after, Coe said, Anziano wanted no further examination of the panels in question, adding, “Do I make myself clear?” in an angry tone.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Coe said. “(Anziano) said, ‘Do you understand me?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I understand you, Tony; you don’t want to see how much of this stuff has been checked.’ ”

A few days later, Anziano removed Coe from the China job. Anziano told senators he replaced Coe because Coe couldn’t get along with the contractors, adversely affecting the team effort.

Ultimately, Caltrans accepted many cracked welds in the bridge, after fixing some and conducting an engineering analysis that indicated others were acceptable and not likely to worsen, Dougherty said.

Merrill, a globally known welding expert, also provided quality control for high-strength steel anchor rods for the new span. Merrill said that he advised Caltrans not to use some of the suspect rods without further tests – and that he was directed by Anziano not to press for further tests.

Last year, dozens of rods snapped on the span, resulting in a costly retrofit and testing process still underway.

DeSaulnier asked Lisa K. Thomas, a materials engineer at Berkeley Research Company and co-author of a recent independent study of the anchor rods, whether Merrill’s warnings should have raised any alarms.

“I’d give it five alarms” and would have rejected the parts, she said.

Anziano, an attorney and not an engineer, flatly denied having intruded on engineering decisions and said he had no such conversation with Merrill.

Morgan, an expert in the testing of foundations for bridges, testified that officials have failed to address legitimate concerns – which he said are shared by other Caltrans experts – about the concrete and steel foundation piles for the suspension span’s signature tower.

That issue was first detailed in a Sacramento Bee investigation that described possible defects in the piles’ concrete, and testing and record-keeping lapses that made their condition impossible to gauge.

At the Friday hearing, Dougherty expressed confidence in the foundation. An independent review of the issue, coordinated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office, is in process.

Morgan said the use of corroded tendons in the skyway viaduct section of the new span – another issue first reported by The Bee – “may be the most significant of all of the problems” facing the Bay Bridge.

He also acknowledged publicly for the first time that, after 21/2 years of unsuccessful efforts to get Caltrans, the Bureau of State Audits and federal authorities to address instances of corruption and testing falsification in Caltrans’ foundation testing unit, he brought evidence to The Bee.

The Bee’s subsequent reports on those issues led to firings and reforms in the testing unit.

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