Skip to comments.Caltrans calls welds scrutinized
Posted on 04/21/2005 7:45:57 AM PDT by SmithL
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."
Welding fraud...glamour, intrigue, money....
Can't the communists find something better to write about?
Sounds like a Labor/Management dust-up. The fellow who did the complaining to the FBI sounds a little to vauge on the details (I know Kiewit, I worked for them and I like them) and he had better be telling the truth, Kiewit is VERY proud of their reputation and are also very protective of it.
Most of the welding on this item is done mechanicaly, using the continous feed submerged arc process.
I suggest you go to the Joint Venture Sponsor's web site: www.kiewit.com and then to the project web site, they have a complete description and pictures of the entire construction process.
If this is true, then it's an example of deception by boredom. It could also be potentially very dangerous. People could care less about welds, and talking about them causes MEGO. But when the bridge collapses, suddenly it becomes very interesting.
I'll take an uninformed stab at a response...
Possibly an organized conspiricy to slow construction in order to pressure Caltrans into offering up concessions to the unions in exchange for them saying they were mistaken and making the whole thing go away...
There. Now to take off this silly tinfoil hat. It itches something awful...
Do we have a non-union contractor involved and Union welders making phone calls to the FBI?
Frankly, I would expect them to use x-rays if they were really seeking to know for certain.
here's the key. title should read "Disgruntled former employee with an axe to grind makes spurious complaint"
The overpass bridges in San Diego had to be x-rayed when substandard welding was uncovered. And that was with the earthquake refits.
It was costly and a real headache for commuters. It's dull work, sure but when you consider the literal lives at risk just from the traffic load or, worse, an earthquake... the welds must be inspected. The concrete, bolts and rebar tested. It's too important. Some of these overpasses in California are multi-tiered and rise hundreds of feet in the air.
All the people involved car about is cutting corners and getting paid. Until something disasterous happens.