Oakland Bay Bridge Cover-up Or Ineptitude At Every Level?

This past weekend a story surfaced in the Sacramento Bee about the problems with the Oakland Bay Bridge. In case some may not recall, the Bay Bridge was the one you probably saw in 1989 that collapsed due to the Loma Prieta earthquake. I witnessed it in my apartment that hot October day at around 5:00 P.M. as I sat at the edge of my bed, petting my dog, who promptly jumped on my lap when it hit. I remember the sound, the wind making an incredible sonic noise is what I remember most.

Immediately afterwards, I walked outside to see what had been done and saw bricks toppled off their anchors on old apartments and streets opened up with cracks that scared the hell out of the neighborhood. We, in my Cole Valley neighborhood, were the lucky ones that day. The marina district went up in flames, and people on their way across the bridge dove to their deaths into the level below and many were caught under the weight of the mass of concrete that supported the ancient bridge.

As I read the article by Charles Piller I searched to find how the dots were connected. Piller’s article focuses on, Department of Transportation technician, Duane Wiles. The $6.3 billion dollar, twenty year project’s responsibility, apparently, is being pinned to a technician with a history of problems:

Caltrans Accused Of Falsifying Bridge Safety Reports

A whistleblower within Caltrans told the Sacramento Bee that tests on bridges across the state were fabricated or measured with inadequate tools. In fact, test results for the La Sierra Road overpass were falsified three years ago, but the bridge was later retested and deemed safe.

The Caltrans engineer responsible for making those measurements, 58-year-old Duane Wiles, was disciplined for faking test results.

And… “Worker who did earthquake testing on Oakland Bay bridge is fired for faking safety tests on other projects

‘There has been absolutely no evidence of any kind of any falsification of any data involving the Bay Bridge,’ Tony Anziano, the agency’s toll bridge programme manager said during a conference call with reporters Monday, the Associated Press reports.

Caltrans said it had reviewed all of Wiles’ work dating to 2004 and found he falsified data on three projects: a Los Angeles underpass on Interstate 405; a bridge in San Bernardino; and an overhead freeway sign in Oakland.

‘We’ve deemed all those facilities safe,’ Caltrans Acting Director Malcolm Dougherty said.

This last article goes on to quote several putative California lawmakers, whose reaction ranged from shock to surprise on these findings:


It’s a concern for anybody who sits behind the wheel. I was shocked when I learned about this mismanagement and I have a lot of questions about the issue and I expect to follow up and get a lot of answers,” said Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Assembly Committee on Transportation.

Senator Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, chair of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, said he would hold a hearing about the safety of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, and how the Caltrans testing process broke down. He said the focus would be ensuring that no similar problems emerge in the future.

“We’ll do our due diligence, and we have time before the bridge opens to make sure it’s safe,” DeSaulnier said.

And then from our illustrious Ms. Pelosi

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Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, whose district includes much of the Bay Bridge, also expressed concern.

“Leader Pelosi believes that safety of our infrastructure must be the number one priority of Caltrans,” said Carlos Sanchez, Pelosi’s deputy press secretary. “Our office has already reached out to Caltrans and (the Federal Highway Administration) to seek a full explanation of what occurred and what will be done to assure the safety of the traveling public now and in the future.”

Here is the problem I am having. For years now many of us have been waiting for the construction to get approved, and then get completed. Along the way, we’ve read about all sorts of scandals, which Mr. Piller, in our conversation today, claimed were not related to his story. To top it off, where were our so-called, shocked, legislators on this topic? Did they forget these stories, or simply failed to grasp that when inferior concrete is used, the structure is compromised, and when welding within the structure is bad, the whole enchilada may come tumbling down with the next big temblor. Consider these and tell me if you think the latest should constitute a surprise, or if these should be included in any cursory investigation:

EMPIRE BUILT ON SAND / Businessman allegedly poured inferior concrete into key projects
July 09, 2006|Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer

Ricardo Ramirez seemed an unlikely success story: At 57, the former Marine Corps judo instructor had spent more than 20 years as a paving contractor and had little to show for it but a long string of lawsuits, business failures and bankruptcies.

Then, in 1998, the struggling businessman appeared to hit upon a way to make it in a new venture. Taking advantage of city and state programs designed to help minority-owned businesses, Ramirez started turning out low-priced, locally produced concrete for projects that included earthquake retrofit work on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge. By 2003, his Pacific Cement venture was supplying a third of the concrete used in San Francisco’s public works projects.

Prosecutors now believe it was an empire of sand.

Ramirez built Pacific Cement on a combination of moxie, deceit and greed, prosecutors say, only to have it crumble. Left behind, they say, was a costly and potentially dangerous legacy: tons of substandard concrete built into vital public structures.

Ramirez, now 65, faces charges of grand theft and fraud for allegedly passing off inferior recycled concrete — a cheaper material that is more prone to wear, cracks and water penetration — as meeting higher durability standards for the Golden Gate Bridge and a Burlingame wastewater treatment plant. He has pleaded not guilty.

He had given nearly $100,000 to state and local politicians since 1995, and twice had been fined for making illegal contributions. Some of his work for San Francisco had been criticized by city officials for its poor quality. Still, he was able to secure work on major state and city projects.

His fall finally came when former truck drivers for Ramirez told prosecutors that they delivered load after load of flawed product — recycled concrete made from ground-up construction debris, rather than hard rock — not just to the Golden Gate Bridge and to Burlingame, but also to the retrofit of the Bay Bridge’s western approach, the Muni’s Third Street light-rail line and a new parking garage in Golden Gate Park.

San Francisco officials say Pacific Cement’s concrete failed a “disproportionate” number of strength tests in 2004 and 2005 as the company began to run into financial problems.

We have no idea if Ramirez is still peddling bad concrete or if he ever was prosecuted. Prior to today, the San Francisco Chronicle did no follow-up we can find on any of it, including the latest accusations. But no one seems to want to include this misdeeds into the surprise that the Bay Bridge – and it sure looks swell as I look out over it – will withstand the next big one.

Chronicle investigative reporters, Matier and Ross wrote back in 2009:

Questions over welds delay Bay Bridge project
January 26, 2009|Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross

Construction of the tower portion of the Bay Bridge’s new eastern span is running months behind schedule, amid questions over whether key portions being made at a Chinese steel plant are defective.

Inspectors hired by Caltrans to monitor the fabrication of steel girders that will support the tower’s roadway reported finding cracked welds last year, Caltrans records show.

The discovery has raised the question whether Bay Area taxpayers are getting a substandard product that could wear out prematurely and require costly repairs in a decade or two.

Caltrans and others in charge of the bridge construction say the welds are safe and that fixes have been made – but also say the inspectors interpreted the welding standards too rigidly.

Meanwhile, the inspection outfit that sounded the alarm has since been replaced.

How in the hell is it that this fiasco has taken so long to get a thorough investigation and it is clear that we need a special prosecutor to examine this, preferably one from another country, as no one expects anyone in our government to be able to connect the dots and come to a logical conclusion. Or we can wait until it collapses and kills even more people at which time I am certain that some in our government will have little problem feigning shock.

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