Troubled welds on the Bay Bridge: How a Chinese builder’s flaws left structural doubts and cost taxpayers

06/07/2014 9:00 PM

10/22/2014 2:29 PM

The Chinese company hired to build key parts of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had never built a bridge.

Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd., after all, was a manufacturer of giant cranes for container ports.

The California Department of Transportation agreed to contract the company known as ZPMC in 2006 because it had established a reputation as fast and cost-effective, offering savings of about $250 million compared to the competing bidder.

Bridge officials were racing to finish the span, pushed years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget by political squabbles and construction delays. Fearful that the old bridge might not survive a major quake, they wanted speed and savings.

Caltrans asked an outside expert to assess whether ZPMC could do the job, and Jim Merrill, a senior materials contractor for the bridge project, gave the company a “contingent pass.” He also labeled it “high risk.” Among other problems, ZPMC didn’t have enough qualified welders or inspectors, the audit noted, and routinely welded in the rain, a basic error that often causes defects.

Undeterred, Caltrans signed off.

The company later boasted of “zero defects” in a news release. Brian Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, said in a recent interview the audit’s “contingent pass” heightened vigilance to head off problems.

But Caltrans’ decision to hire an inexperienced Chinese company, unaccustomed to the rigor of American construction rules, to fabricate the suspension span’s signature tower and roadway partly explains why costs ballooned to $6.5 billion and misgivings persist about the quality of the bridge. Caltrans continued to bet on ZPMC by relaxing U.S. standards when the firm couldn’t finish fast enough.

Caltrans overrode bridge welding codes and near-universal requirements for new bridge construction when it deemed many cracks in welds produced by ZPMC inconsequential and left them in place to hurry construction along, Caltrans documents show.

Maroney said ZPMC’s automated welding process produced excellent results. Caltrans documents show that it also paid hundreds of millions of dollars to fix problems of ZPMC’s making, even as it delivered a bridge riddled with cracked welds.

If ZPMC couldn’t build the bridge to the required quality, “it should have been taken away from them and built someplace else,” Doug Coe, a high-level Caltrans engineer in China during much of the job, said at a California Senate committee hearing in January.

“The race for time” created overwhelming pressure to keep moving as planned, he said. “But there’s no excuse for building something defective like that because we are in a race for time.”

The litany of Bay Bridge problems exposed in recent years by The Sacramento Bee and others includes suspect foundation concrete, broken anchor rods and rust on the suspension span’s main cable. Yet beyond those investigative findings, bridge engineers say, the decision to hire ZPMC will haunt the new span and the traveling public for generations to come.

In an investigation of the welding issues, The Bee reviewed more than 100,000 pages of construction records and emails by bridge officials, interviewed technical experts and examined testimony at the Senate hearing.

The state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the California Highway Patrol are investigating how the weld problems were handled. (In a written statement, Caltrans declined to comment on the CHP probe.)

At the Senate hearing, bridge officials dismissed quality concerns as baseless. “It has been a winding road to get here, but we are here. We have achieved seismic safety for the bridge,” said Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty.

But committee chair Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, suggested that Caltrans had tried to cover up serious problems with “a deliberate and willful ... attempt to obfuscate.”

His comments were echoed by experts inside and outside Caltrans – some of whom supervised the welding and warned of serious flaws. They said the state bought a bridge likely to require extraordinary and costly maintenance.

“If you have to go up on the decks and start taking lane closures and scrape off all the asphalt and do deck repairs for months and months and months, that certainly could affect public welfare,” Coe said at the Senate hearing.

Professional engineers, he said, must report “any irregularities that could affect public welfare.” That’s what Coe and his colleagues did.

“But (Caltrans) has the prerogative to accept these (cracked or suspect parts), ‘fit for purpose,’ ” Coe said. That’s what Caltrans managers did.

2006-07: Lapses from start

Shortly before ZPMC was hired, the Legislature empowered a new group, the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee – the heads of Caltrans, the California Transportation Commission and the Bay Area Toll Authority – to supervise construction on the troubled project. In October 2006, in what would become a refrain, the committee called accelerating construction “Job One.”

Caltrans’ prime contractor on this part of the bridge was ABF, a joint venture of American Bridge Co. and Fluor Enterprises Inc. ABF, with Caltrans’ approval, hired ZPMC as a subcontractor. In choosing a Chinese firm, Caltrans gave up federal money and angered U.S. labor advocates and steel-makers. Maroney said no U.S. firm could have built as quickly a bridge so innovative and complex. ZPMC, with its vast capacity and ultra-modern equipment, was the right choice, he said.

In December 2006, ZPMC began making roadway “box girders.” These box shells, flat on top for the roadway, weigh up to 1,669 tons each. ZPMC would weld thick steel panels together to create the boxes. The finished girders would be shipped to Oakland and welded together there to form the suspension span’s 2,047-foot roadway.

But after a month, the work already was going sideways. A Caltrans inspector caught ZPMC employees using the wrong radiation source from the wrong direction to check steel plates for flaws. ABF didn’t catch the lapse.

Caltrans recorded the episode in a “nonconformance report,” a technical memo detailing contract violations and specifying corrections. The reports, many citing multiple errors, averaged one every day or two – adding up to 965 in less than five years. ZPMC welders made errors, and the firm’s inspectors overlooked those flaws day after day.

Months after ZPMC won the job, Gary Pursell, a high-level Caltrans engineering supervisor on the job, noted in his job diaries that the firm lacked basic quality control. The company hired for speed was soon behind schedule, Pursell wrote.

Caltrans diaries also indicated that ZPMC violated the job contract by delivering key documents in Chinese instead of English. ABF lacked sufficient quality-assurance staff to speak directly to its own subcontractor – also a contract violation. “Although I can jump in when misunderstanding between ABF and ZPMC developed,” Caltrans engineer Stanley Ku wrote in a report, “I do think ABF should have a (quality expert) who can speak Mandarin to reduce the ‘misunderstanding’ situation.”

Cracked welds appeared regularly, particularly in roadway box girders – parts that challenge even the best welders. Yet the oversight committee created by the Legislature, charged with watching the clock and budget as it protected public safety, knew that ZPMC welders lacked the required experience, according to the committee’s May 2007 meeting minutes.

Getting ZPMC to comply with the contract “was a real struggle,” Michael Forner, a retired Caltrans principal engineer who served as one of the job’s top officials, said in an interview. ZPMC subcontracted work out to other companies, he said, making it harder to ensure that welders had proper training.

“They basically rented out the shop,” creating a chaotic job site, Forner said. Workers flooded the plant on Changxing Island at the mouth of the Yangtze River – then a 4-mile boat ride from Shanghai. “It was hard to get the bus from the dock to the shop, there were so many people riding bikes and walking.”

ZPMC had been working under the contingent pass from the 2006 audit while moving to fix its operations. In August 2007, Caltrans auditors approved ZPMC outright, although the firm still lacked adequate quality control, even for “fracture critical” materials, according to the audit report. Fracture critical means the failure of such materials could “result in a partial or full collapse of the bridge,” according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.

In October 2007, Caltrans told the oversight committee that ZPMC was well qualified and watched carefully by ABF, the oversight minutes noted.

But Caltrans documents state that ZPMC often ignored or defied the prime contractor and Caltrans alike – and got away with it.

2008: ZPMC rebels

Incorporated in 1992, ZPMC is one of the world’s leading builders of port machinery. Although the firm’s stock trades publicly, it’s a subsidiary of government-controlled China Communication Construction Co. Ltd., among the world’s largest companies. ZPMC officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The Bay Bridge project showed that it had joined the realm of ambitious Chinese enterprises that took on the most complex and high-profile jobs, according to ZMPC’s website. A “strict and responsible spirit,” it said, led U.S. partners to trust and admire ZPMC.

In early 2008, at a meeting with Caltrans and ABF, the Chinese firm showed open defiance, according to a Caltrans memo about welder performance. “ZPMC stated that they, as the fabricator, will decide whether or not they will adhere to the agreed upon (quality-test) procedures. To this date, ABF has not provided the Department with ZPMC’s decision.”

Rick Morrow, a supervising Caltrans engineer, wrote in his job diary, “Is ABF unable to control ZPMC or doesn’t want to? No follow through on agreement and ZPMC ignored the ABF stop order. ... ”

Philip Stolarski, head of Caltrans materials testing, testified at the January Senate hearing that ZPMC treated contract requirements as “suggestions.”

Caltrans would not permit interviews with Morrow or Stolarski for this story.

Brian A. Petersen, project director for ABF, declined to comment. A written statement from ABF said, “While there were many unique challenges on a project of such complexity ... we were able to achieve Seismic Safety and successfully open the bridge to traffic this past Fall and accomplish this feat in a safe manner.” The statement noted that ABF is cooperating with the CHP investigation.

In March 2008, after more than a year of work, hundreds of weld cracks still appeared. Stolarski directed Merrill, the quality contractor, to alert Peter Siegenthaler, the most senior Caltrans manager for what the department called “Team China.” Merrill recommended that production on the bridge deck panels be halted until ZPMC could produce reliable parts.

“Very shortly after that I was told (by Siegenthaler that) I was no longer authorized to write recommendations on state letterhead,” Merrill said at the hearing.

Siegenthaler, who left Caltrans in 2011, declined to comment.

Caltrans responded in a joint statement from many unnamed officials. It said that Merrill’s memo to Siegenthaler “was shared with the project team and it was the judgment of the project team that it was in the best interest of the project to continue production.” Actual or possible flaws were repaired as required by the contract, the statement noted.

Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, said he held Merrill in high esteem, and still seeks his advice on engineering issues. Maroney never heard about Merrill’s suggestion to halt production, he said. “There was a goal that ‘Team China’ made decisions in China.”

Welding problems continued. “Transverse” cracks – crossing a weld rather than following its length – which can grow into adjacent base metal and cause a box girder to fail, had become common, according to a June 2008 Caltrans report. ZPMC’s repairs regularly fell short, the report noted.

The same month, Tony Anziano, a Caltrans attorney who headed all toll bridge construction, told the bridge oversight group that the repair of the deck panels was close to resolution.

Anziano declined an interview request. In its written statement, Caltrans said Anziano’s reference to “resolution” referred to an “agreed upon path forward involving the departments, the contractor, and fabricator.”

Yet, hundreds more nonconformance reports were issued to ZPMC for faulty box-girder welds or related problems.

Those reports and others said that one of the serious problems cited in ZPMC’s first audit – welding or testing welds in the rain or in wet conditions – continued on numerous occasions over years of production. Wet welds often mean contamination of the steel with hydrogen, a chief cause for cracks.

In several cases, bridge sections had been stored in the rain and filled with water. ABF said in a response to a nonconformance report on the matter, that the resulting, inaccessible corrosion inside the parts “would be insignificant and un-measurable” – a conclusion Caltrans accepted without comment.

The oversight committee began to discuss financial sweeteners to induce ZPMC to recover time lost to fixing bad welds, according to the group’s minutes. It also emphasized quality as “the main goal” – a rare caveat amid constant demands to move faster.

2008: Risky business

“Evening mtg with Anziano in China. Tony says ZPMC is on verge of stopping work on the job,” Morrow wrote in his diary in July 2008. “(Caltrans) needs to direct work to move forward even if it adds risk and cost.” In its written response to Sacramento Bee questions, Caltrans wrote that while it could not define “risk” without a close review of the context of such statements, the risk of an earthquake to public safety “has always been the driving factor” for the project.

“Nearly all staff below Pete (Siegenthaler) and Tony (Anziano) agree that SERIOUS problems exist in the fabrications and with ABF,” Morrow wrote. “Moral(e) is very low as concerns are not followed up on and poor workmanship is allowed to continue.”

As delays dragged on, Caltrans approved paying the contractors an additional $6.5 million to boost efficiency and quality, and to catalog the work.

The money didn’t fix ongoing problems with “tack welds,” a key concern for Merrill. Those preliminary welds for the box girders, about 3 inches long, hold in place steel parts in preparation for final welds.

Tack welds were cracking routinely and the cracks often remained underneath the final welds, according to Merrill’s testimony at the Senate hearing. John Fisher, an expert on metal fractures and emeritus professor at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., confirmed this observation for Caltrans soon after Merrill raised the issue in August 2008, according to Fisher’s report on the issue.

Merrill feared that the cracks could cause structural problems. But Siegenthaler directed Merrill “not to look in areas that I knew there were cracks,” Merrill said at the hearing.

In an email with photos to Siegenthaler, provided to The Bee by a state Senate investigator, Merrill alerted Siegenthaler to the problem. Siegenthaler did not change his orders, Merrill said at the hearing.

Maroney told The Bee that he never saw Merrill’s memos or emails. “It was a Team China thing, but I knew there was fighting. And that’s actually why I went there,” to look into the matter with Fisher’s help.

In a rebuttal to Merrill’s Senate testimony, an official from Alta Vista Solutions, Siegenthaler’s current employer, called Merrill’s requests to fix cracks “a contentious issue” that “would further deteriorate the relationship between Caltrans and the fabricator/contractor, and that would not address the problem at its root. Mr. Siegenthaler instructed (Merrill) to follow the agreed upon inspection protocols,” rather than directing him not to find cracks.

DeSaulnier, at the Senate hearing, asked Coe, the Caltrans engineer, if Merrill had been too rigorous.

“There’s nothing rigorous about meeting the contract specifications,” Coe said. “ ... (Merrill’s) recommendation to stop the process like that, because it was leaving problems in the work, is what we normally do.”

Coe, drawing on decades of Caltrans experience, said at the hearing that he still warned Merrill to expect trouble: “Talking back to the ... project manager puts you in harm’s way.”

In an earlier interview with the Senate investigator, however, Coe said Anziano called the shots. “Anyone who went against Tony didn’t stick around,” Coe said, according to the Senate report. “This is the first time in my career the engineering wasn’t allowed to be done right.”

A few months after Merrill confronted Siegenthaler, Caltrans agreed to a major change in the contract to allow cracks in some tack welds to remain unrepaired.

In a recent interview, Keith Devonport, a consultant for one of the project’s subcontractors who said he served as fabrication manager in China, confirmed that Siegenthaler ordered Merrill to ignore certain cracks. He said he agreed with Merrill’s concerns “100 percent.”

Devonport had managed similar box-girder fabrication for large companies since 1995. He worked in China on the Bay Bridge from 2006 until 2010. He quit in disappointment about project management, he said, after Caltrans moved him from China to California. “I didn’t feel as though I could perform my role as fabrication manager 5,000 miles away from where it was taking place,” he said.

In its written statement, Caltrans said that Devonport was not a fabrication manager, and was moved to California to assist on other aspects of the job.

Shortly after Merrill voiced concerns about welds, nearly nine months before the contract of his firm, MACTEC Engineering and Consulting Inc., expired, Caltrans put the contract out to bid. Caltrans ordered an independent audit of a competitor, Caltrop Corp. and its subcontractor, Alta Vista. The audit, obtained by The Bee from the Senate investigator, stated that they lacked skill or experience required for key welding supervision jobs. Yet before the audit was completed, Caltrans certified the firms as qualified and awarded them the contract.

“(T)he decision to advertise a new contract for inspection services ... was made by the Department’s CFO,” Caltrans said in its written statement. “Specific issues surrounding quality assurance contractors are the subject of an ongoing CHP investigation ... and questions about that should be directed to CHP.”

2009: Shanghai showdown

In late 2008, Caltrans began payments of more than $13 million more to build a database to track weld quality. (Caltrans refused to provide it to The Bee, saying that the data still had to be crossed-checked for accuracy.)

With the schedule for delivery of the deck sections slipping, the oversight group called for “drastic measures,” meeting minutes noted early in 2009. It approved $45 million for acceleration incentives.

But as the work sped up, quality problems worsened. On July 1, Pursell, one of the top engineering managers, told ABF that Caltrans had been finding more cracks on welds that ZPMC inspectors had approved.

“(Y)our data does not indicate the seriousness associated with the presence of transverse cracks,” the kind that can grow into the surrounding metal of the box girders and cause fractures, Pursell wrote to ABF executive Michael Flowers. Such cracks, he added, “are of great concern structurally.”

Worried that flaws were being missed, Coe ordered new tests using ultrahigh-frequency sound waves at a setting not previously tried. He found worrisome cracks in approved welds. On Sept. 15, 2009, Coe drafted a formal state letter requesting more such tests.

Anziano ordered Coe to rescind the letter, according to an email obtained by The Bee. Coe, who had managed box-girder projects at Caltrans for about 30 years, said at the Senate hearing that he had never been told before to overlook serious quality concerns.

The first shipment of girders were on a boat ready to go to Oakland. “It’s important for you guys to know that these segments that are coming over to Oakland may be full of defects,” Coe testified he told Kenneth Terpstra, a deputy to Anziano.

Coe said that in a conference call he told Anziano he intended to take the box girders off the boat and recheck them to protect public safety. Anziano became angry and ordered him not to do so, adding, “Do I make myself clear?” Coe said. “I was just flabbergasted.”

Soon after, Anziano came to China and removed Coe from the Bay Bridge job. At the hearing, Anziano said he reassigned Coe to reduce job-site tension.

“We’ve seen instances, time and time again, where we have, in effect, gone to war with the contractor,” Anziano said at the Senate hearing. “It will cost you time. It will cost you money. ... And it will not resolve the problems.” He denied compromising quality or overstepping his authority by making engineering decisions.

But Caltrans eventually took Coe’s advice, to a degree, ordering some of the new tests he proposed and some repairs, according to records recently made public.

As concerns about workmanship mounted, the ZPMC began to resist even standard quality assurance. According to a nonconformance report at the time, Caltrans employees came to the jobsite to test a box girder for possible cracks on heavily corroded welds. A ZPMC supervisor obstructed efforts to take photos, wiped away key markings from the test area and shouted “no UT,” a reference to ultrasonic testing. The inspectors withdrew. Caltrans later agreed to conduct its quality checks on a schedule agreed to by ZPMC.

On Dec. 30, the first finished box girders were shipped to Oakland.

“Steel decks have cracks in ’em,” said Steve Heminger, executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission and current chairman of the oversight group, at the January Senate hearing. “The issue is not whether there’s a crack there, it’s whether it matters.” Caltrans evaluations, reviewed by experts, found that the cracks didn’t matter, he said.

2010-2011: Epilogue

Over the next year, the oversight committee approved funds to train ZPMC welders, plus more than $191 million in speed-up incentives and cost adjustments, according to contract change orders. With so much money flowing, the roadway box girders moved in a steady stream from Shanghai to Oakland. By early 2010, 12 of 28 had been lifted into place over the bay. By the end of that year, 19 had been installed.

Siegenthaler, who oversaw the work in Shanghai, retired from state service in September 2011, and a month later, just before the final bridge girders were set in place over the bay, he joined Alta Vista Solutions as executive vice president.

Siegenthaler had been a member of the Caltrans committee that in 2008 awarded the quality supervision contract to Caltrop and Alta Vista. His first-place ranking put them over the top to win the contract, according to the committee’s records, obtained by The Bee under the state Public Records Act. A couple of months after Siegenthaler left Caltrans, Alta Vista won the $21 million prime contract to oversee quality issues for the new span’s materials.

Records provided by the state Fair Political Practices Commission said that Siegenthaler contacted the agency in December 2011 to ask whether he might risk violating conflict of interest laws if he worked on Caltrans projects. Based on the facts Siegenthaler presented, the agency saw no problem. The documents contain no mention of his role in awarding the Alta Vista-Caltrop contract.

As the project wound down, ZPMC reaped tangible rewards, sharing with ABF more than $250 million in cost overruns and incentive payments.

Counting the money spent on travel and living costs for Caltrans and its contractors, the suspension span consumed much more than the $250 million in ZPMC’s assumed efficiencies that made the Chinese steel so cost-effective.

“We have traded money for time,” said Heminger. “We never once traded quality for time.”

Overseas contract leads to high travel tab

By selecting a bridge-building neophyte in Shanghai to fabricate the iconic suspension span of the new Bay Bridge, Caltrans took on logistical complexity and escalating travel bills.

Caltrans employees and U.S. contractors who supervised the job lived fulltime in Shanghai, and top officials flew there often. Tony Anziano, toll bridge program manager, alone spent more than $300,000 on travel.

Part of that cost was for Anziano’s room at the five-star JW Marriott Shanghai Tomorrow Square for up to $470 per night, according to his expense reports. One of the city’s most luxurious hotels, it features a 60th floor library – the world’s highest – marble bathrooms and a lavish Mandara Spa. Anziano, the top Caltrans official on the bridge project, almost always stayed at Tomorrow Square, in the stylish Puxi shopping district, across the teeming metropolis from the bridge jobsite.

Kenneth Terpstra, a deputy to Anziano, often stayed at the same hotel, up to 27 days at a stretch, for as much as $567 per night.

Caltrans described the accommodations as "reasonable and appropriate" in a written statement. "The hotel provided a government rate that was comparable to rates at other western hotels," and followed bargaining agreements, based in part on providing adequate "safety and support for employees far from home."

Caltrans employees on long-term assignments in Shanghai stayed at the Marriott Executive Apartments – at the top end of the local long-stay hotel market, according to the leasing agency bizstay.com. For more than three years, Caltrans paid about $50,000 annually per person to rent more than a dozen well-appointed rooms with access to a state-of-the-art fitness center and pool, according to lease agreements.

Anziano made at least 64 such visits over six years between 2006 and 2012, jetting from San Francisco to Shanghai as often as four times a month, often staying one or two days, according to travel records obtained under the California Public Records Act. For a two-day trip in 2011 he paid $6,266 in plane fare, although a coach ticket at the time typically cost less than $1,500.

"Real time on-site observations and conversation were (critical) to effective management of the program and project," Caltrans said about Anziano’s trips.

Anziano usually billed his travel for the Bay Bridge to the Bay Area Toll Authority, funded mostly by bridge tolls. In the process, he accumulated about 400,000 frequent flyer miles for his personal use, as permitted by state law.

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