In a burgeoning scandal that has been reported by the Sacramento Bee regarding the repair of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a new fact has come to light: the Chinese company hired to fix the bridge, Shanghai Zhenhua Port Machinery Co. Ltd., (ZPMC), had never built a bridge.
The Chinese company was, in fact, a manufacturer of giant cranes for container ports.
The California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) hired ZPMC in 2006 because its bid was $250 million less than the competing bidder.
Caltrans feared that the bridge might collapse from an earthquake, and so it chose a company known for its speed. Caltrans asked Jim Merrill, a senior materials contractor, to evaluate ZPMC’s capability, and Merrill gave ZPMC a “contingent pass,” calling the company “high risk.” He pointed out that ZPMC lacked the requisite number of qualified welders or inspectors and often welded in the rain, which could cause defects.
Caltrans hired ZPMC anyway, even stating later in a news release that the repairs showed “zero defects.” Brian Maroney, chief engineer for the bridge, recently defended the hiring of ZPMC, saying the audit’s “contingent pass” made ZPMC more aware that it had to be careful.
Caltrans even eased U.S. standards because ZPMC was not getting the job done quickly enough, overriding bridge-welding codes and normal requirements for new bridge construction. Caltrans said some of the cracks in the welds left by ZPMC were unimportant “and left them in place to hurry construction along, Caltrans documents show,” according to the Sacramento Bee.
Maroney claimed ZPMC’s automated welding process had results that were first-rate, even though Caltrans documents reveal hundreds of millions of dollars were shelled out to fix problems ZPMC left behind. Doug Coe, a high-level Caltrans engineer, told a California Senate committee hearing in January that if ZPMC couldn’t handle the job, “it should have been taken away from them and built someplace else… there’s no excuse for building something defective like that because we are in a race for time.”
The Sacramento Bee has been reporting for years about the problems with the bridge, including weak foundation concrete, broken anchor rods, and rust on the suspension span’s main cable. The state Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and the California Highway Patrol are investigating the problems with the welds on the bridge, but Caltrans officials are rigidly defending their actions before the Senate. Caltrans Director Malcolm Dougherty said, “It has been a winding road to get here, but we are here. We have achieved seismic safety for the bridge.”
Committee chair Sen. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier (D-CA) (D-Concord) harshly disagreed, saying Caltrans had made “a deliberate and willful… attempt to obfuscate.” Coe admitted, “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,” but added that professional engineers must report such things, which Coe and his colleagues did. He concluded by pointing out that after the report is made, Caltrans is free to accept cracks and defects if the structure is still “fit for purpose.”