Oakland Bay Bridge Update: Caltrans Assumes Bay Bridge Concrete Won’t Fail

As we stated in our earlier column (http://tek-blogs.com/a/4jnju4), the whole story on the bay bridge construction problems needs to come out, even if the major media outlets won’t provide it. Charges against Caltrans may have the media folks, that deliver the usual palaver to your doorstep, uninterested in examining the failed transportation giant, but we will do everything we can to provide the details and hope our brilliant engineers and technicians give us their feedback on what we find.

Here is what we know to date on the problem, and below you will read the issues that led to our investigation:

Bay Bridge fracture analysis
By Nathanael Johnson on March 31, 2010 – 5:16pm

Last fall (2009 that refers to), one of the eye-bars holding up the Bay Bridge cracked. Now we know why. A Caltrans analysis has shown that the problem was in the way the eye-bar was manufactured, said Bay Bridge spokesman Bart Ney on March 30th. And it wasn’t a mistake – every eye-bar was made this way.

They were all fabricated in accordance to a process established in the 1930s,” said Tony Anziano (http://tek-blogs.com/a/siw5rr ) , the full bridge program manager. That process creates a slight concavity on the outside edge of the eye-bar head, and the edges of that concavity form a thin edge. Anytime you have an outermost edge like that, it is susceptible to fatigue. (To understand this, imagine bending a piece of clay. It’s clear that in any circular formation, stress accumulates in the outer edge, and that’s where cracks start.)

Having that thin edge provided the opportunity for the crack to start, Anziano said, and it slowly worked it’s way inward over the course of a little more than a year. To solve this problem, workers have ground down the edges of the eye-bars, and painted them with dye to reveal any microscopic cracks. The dye is orange, and if you’ve been noticing that every eye-bar head looks rusty as you drive over the bridge – that’s not rust, but dye, according to Anziano.

The takeaway? This is a problem that seems to have been solved. Before people were being told that normal vibration caused the problem, and the implication was that it could cause a similar crack on any other eye-bar. And vibration is still thought to be key, but now that the analysis has revealed clearly that the manufactured ridge contributed, and now that those ridges have been eliminated, we can all breathe a little easier.

Earlier today we spoke with Assembly member Bonnie Lowenthal’s office to learn that a hearing will be held, and we intend to provide a more comprehensive background on that the history. No one in government today can cover all the issues and history of every transportation issue we have in California. We just hope that the folks who do hold the hearings will view all the facts and problems taxpayers and travelers face in the state.

In our earlier story we discussed the problems with Ricardo Ramirez and wondered why his problems were not part of the stories covered in the Bee. We note here that after speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle, they are not covering the story. We found this online and decided to track it back to its disposition.

US: Concrete contractor cuts deal with prosecutors by Jaxon Van Derbeken, San Francisco Chronicle (http://corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15068)

Two years ago (2006), San Francisco authorities blamed a local businessman for orchestrating a fraud scheme that resulted in tons of substandard concrete being used in public structures.

But the fraud case against Ricardo Ramirez crumbled earlier this year when prosecutors dropped those charges as part of a deal under which he pleaded guilty to a single environmental count. Ramirez will serve a year of home detention and avoid jail time as long as he pays $427,000 in fines and restitution.

Meanwhile, the public is stuck with his legacy. Substandard concrete from Ramirez’s now-defunct company was poured into a half-mile stretch of the Bay Bridge’s rebuilt western approach.

Some agencies say the material is not a problem. At the Bay Bridge approach, however, Caltrans and its main contractor will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep concrete from deteriorating decades earlier than it should. None of the money that Ramirez must pay to settle his criminal case will go toward shoring up the taxpayer-funded project.

With great fanfare in May 2006, San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris announced that Ramirez stood atop an empire of fraud.

We must ensure that our public projects receive quality materials and are not victims of fraud,” the city’s top prosecutor said. “We will continue to work with all these public agencies to protect the environment and to protect public safety.”

Ramirez, now 67, presided over several failed paving ventures before forming Pacific Cement in 1998. The company took advantage of government programs that help minority-owned businesses, and by 2003 he was supplying a third of the concrete that San Francisco used for public works.

Recycled concrete cheaper

But the company started having financial problems, and Ramirez turned to passing off recycled concrete, made from ground-up concrete debris, as the more expensive and durable product that is made solely from hard rock, authorities said.

San Francisco prosecutors originally charged him with 14 felonies and 14 misdemeanors, including nine counts related to the use of recycled concrete. They said Pacific Cement had supplied the inferior product for a 4-inch-thick decorative facade on a pylon that supports the arch over Fort Point at the Golden Gate Bridge. At the Burlingame sewage plant, the material went into a foundation of a control room building, prosecutors said.

At the time, authorities pointed to tests and accounts by workers indicating that Pacific Cement had delivered substandard concrete to a host of other major public works projects. But Ramirez was never charged in connection with any of them.

Then, in January, San Francisco prosecutors dropped 27 of the 28 counts they had filed against Ramirez and agreed to a deal in which he pleaded guilty to a single environmental charge of illegally storing waste oil at a concrete-production facility he leased from the city on Pier 80.

Harris’ office had no explanation for why it dropped the concrete case. It issued a statement stressing that Ramirez had pleaded guilty to the “most serious environmental charge” he faced and that he would pay restitution.

Ramirez’s attorney, Stuart Hanlon, said the deal was reached after prosecutors told him that the concrete Ramirez supplied to the Golden Gate Bridge and Burlingame sewage plant projects met strength standards set by the state.

Under the deal, Ramirez must pay about $56,000 to the Golden Gate Bridge district, $80,000 to the port for cleanup and $41,600 to compensate the city’s toxics division for cleanup and inspection of his plant site.

We decided to examine how these charges were exactly deposed and contacted both Stuart Hanlon, Ramirez’ attorney and, Evan Ackiron, the prosecutor who made the deal, with the blessing of Pamela Harris, now the California Attorney General.

According to Hanlon, and he said he takes credit for the deal, Caltrans provided an approval that the concrete was not a problem, except for the deception Ramirez used in claiming it was not recycled. He said, Ramirez it turns out was ahead of his time in using recycled concrete. We’re not sure what sort of recycled concrete was used, and we’ve yet to have our engineers examine the data used to let Ramirez off with a fine and being kept out of San Francisco work until 2012. Other than that, Ramirez is operating his new business out of his home in Goleta: (805) 683-0133 Ramcon Concrete Construction

We also spoke with District Attorney Ackiron who promised to provide details on the disposition and we will share those with you after our engineers examine their efficacy. According to the Bee, and the office of Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, chair of the Committee on Transportation, a request by the Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee state oversight committee announced Tuesday that it had requested a formal review of the foundation of the new Bay Bridge tower by the state’s Seismic Safety Peer Review Panel.

Here is a piece we found at an environmental site:

US: Concrete contractor cuts deal with prosecutors

Ramirez, who has been sued by the city for lease violations as well as by contractors over the allegedly inferior concrete he supplied, says he is nearly bankrupt. He has until Aug. 20 to mortgage properties to pay the fines and restitution, Hanlon said.

Bridge got biggest batch

The project to replace the Bay Bridge western approach, which is scheduled to be finished next year, appears to have gotten the single biggest infusion of substandard concrete from Pacific Cement of any public works job.

It is unclear why San Francisco prosecutors never filed charges against Ramirez in connection with the rebuild.

Tony Anziano (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/tony-anziano/12/796/821) , the Caltrans official in charge of the project, said his agency had been defrauded by Pacific Cement. He said that Caltrans had always cooperated with prosecutors and that he couldn’t explain why they hadn’t pursued charges.

Prosecutors said that they lacked evidence against Ramirez in the Caltrans project at the time they brought the case against him, and that over the next two years they never got what they needed.

Anziano says Caltrans will have to make the best of the situation.

“I’m not thrilled about the fact that we have recycled concrete in there,” Anziano said. Caltrans assumes that all of 27,000 cubic yards of concrete that Pacific Cement supplied for the project – enough to cover a football field 16 1/2 feet deep – was recycled.

The material went into a half-mile stretch leading to the Fremont Street ramp. Anziano stressed that the concrete meets building requirements for freeway structures, but said it may not last as long as it should – 60 years – because recycled concrete is prone to micro-cracking and moisture infiltration.

Anziano said Caltrans has ways of detecting substandard concrete before it hardens, but acknowledged that Pacific Cement had gotten around the safeguards. Still, he said, nothing has changed in how Caltrans deals with cement providers.

“You go into contracts assuming we are dealing with honest people – you have to,” he said.

Bay Bridge western approach: Based on tests it has performed on the new approach, Caltrans assumes that all 27,000 cubic yards of concrete that Pacific Cement supplied for the project was recycled. Caltrans and its main contractor, Tutor-Saliba Corp., are expected to split the cost of treating the concrete to make it last as long as it should. Ramirez was never charged in connection with the deliveries, and none of the restitution he must pay to resolve his criminal case will go to Caltrans.

In another story, Bridge Comes to San Francisco With a Made-in-China Label, this year from the NYTimes, we learned this about the process that Caltrans used and some other interesting tidbits that California residents ought to be aware of when it comes to their tax dollars. The most interesting part of this story are the comments from earlier this year which are still viewable.

California decided not to apply for federal funding for the project because the “Buy America” provisos would probably have required purchasing more expensive steel and fabrication from United States manufacturers.

China, the world’s biggest steel maker, was the front-runner, particularly because it has dominated bridge building for the last decade. Several years ago, Shanghai opened a 20-mile sea bridge; the country is now planning a much longer one near Hong Kong.

The selection of the state-owned Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company was a surprise, though, because the company made port cranes and had no bridge building experience.

But California officials and executives at American Bridge said Zhenhua’s advantages included its huge steel fabrication facilities, its large low-cost work force and its solid finances. (The company even had its own port and ships.)

“I don’t think the U.S. fabrication industry could put a project like this together,” Brian A. Petersen, project director for the American Bridge/Fluor Enterprises joint venture, said in a telephone interview. “Most U.S. companies don’t have these types of warehouses, equipment or the cash flow. The Chinese load the ships, and it’s their ships that deliver to our piers.”

Despite the American union complaints, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, strongly backed the project and even visited Zhenhua’s plant last September, praising “the workers that are building our Bay Bridge.”

Zhenhua put 3,000 employees to work on the project: steel-cutters, welders, polishers and engineers. The company built the main bridge tower, which was shipped in mid-2009, and a total of 28 bridge decks — the massive triangular steel structures that will serve as the roadway platform.

Pan Zhongwang, a 55-year-old steel polisher, is a typical Zhenhua worker. He arrives at 7 a.m. and leaves at 11 p.m., often working seven days a week. He lives in a company dorm and earns about $12 a day.

“It used to be $9 a day, now it’s $12,” he said Wednesday morning, while polishing one of the decks for the new Bay Bridge. “Everything is getting more expensive. They should raise our pay.”

To ensure the bridge meets safety standards, 250 employees and consultants working for the state of California and American Bridge/Fluor also took up residence in Shanghai.

The story’s legs continue to grow and we continue to find bits and pieces that seem to have been overlooked. Once we see the data on the deal made on the concrete and how it was tested, we’ll be sure to share those and let our engineering folks tell us what they think.

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