Feds inspecting claims of unsafe Nevada bridge
Associated Press Writer
RENO, Nev. (AP) – Federal transportation inspectors are investigating a former construction worker’s claims that a bridge being built in a $600 million dollar Nevada highway project is unsafe because he was ordered to do substandard concrete work to save money.
Part of the 8.5-mile highway project linking Reno and Carson City, the Galena Forest Bridge is just south of the Mount Rose Highway Interchange. It is not the much larger, cathedral-arch Galena Creek Bridge in Washoe Valley.
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General launched the review at the request of Reps. James Oberstar, D-Minn., chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of its Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.
The congressmen also asked the Transportation Department to evaluate David Lee’s claim that he was fired in retaliation for complaining to state transportation officials about shoddy concrete work on the bridge project south of Reno late last year.
State officials have since investigated Lee’s charges and dismissed them as false.
The two congressman said in their letter that even though the California-based contractor C.C. Myers states the events are unrelated, Lee was laid off after leveling his accusations.
“Mr. Lee believes there may be other workers who were given the same ‘cost-cutting’ instructions by the contractor but are afraid to speak out for fear of jeopardizing their current jobs or becoming the subject of future industry ‘blackballing,'” they said in a copy of the Jan. 22 letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Nevada Department of Transportation officials, who earlier characterized Lee as a “disgruntled” former employee, confirmed this week they’re cooperating with the new investigation. But they said they are confident the federal review will reach the same conclusion they did – that there’s nothing to Lee’s claims and the bridge is safe.
“It sounds like they may come out here and do their own independent analysis,” NDOT spokesman Scott Magruder said of the federal inquiry. “It is something we welcome. We’d like to get this over with. We’d like to exonerate ourselves.”
Beth Ruyak, a spokeswoman for C.C. Myers in Rancho Cordova, Calif., said the company’s internal review of Lee’s claims found them to be baseless.
“Our position continues to be there is no evidence to back any of these claims,” she told AP.
Lee, 49, first contacted the committee’s staff Jan. 4 after initially airing his complaints in an AP news story in December that the bridge was unsafe and could collapse when it is scheduled to open later this year. He said Wednesday he was pleased the inspector general was getting involved.
The congressmen said in their letter that Lee told committee staff that while working for C.C. Myers he had been “instructed to substitute substandard stucco for load-bearing concrete” on the Galena Forest Bridge.
Stucco, which contains cement and sand but no concrete, is generally only considered suitable for cosmetic applications, they said.
NDOT found that Lee’s job was routine and involved installation of small cosmetic patches. The agency said he did not apply concrete used for bridge decks and columns and his work had no effect on the structure’s integrity.
“The whole dispute is whether cheap materials were used,” Magruder said. “Our records show every patch job that was done everywhere on that bridge and our inspectors signed off on all of those as, ‘Yes, they passed the test.'”
“There is a very big inspection process especially when federal dollars are used,” he said.
But the congressmen said Lee told committee staff his job was to “fill in weak spots on the supporting bridge columns after the concrete was poured and set,” and that he can pinpoint those weak spots on blueprints.
Oberstar has been especially sensitive to any allegations of structural bridge deficiencies since the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, said Leila Kahn, a member of the committee’s Oversight and Investigations staff. The collapse during evening rush hour killed 13 people, injured 145 and led to a closer examination of bridge safety throughout the country.
The congressmen asked the inspectors specifically to attempt to determine whether Lee’s claims about the stucco have merit and whether other current or former workers at the bridge were instructed to substitute non-conforming products. They also want to know whether “any substandard materials were repaired or replaced by NDOT or the contractor subsequent to Mr. Lee’s public allegations regarding substitutions.”
Lee told AP earlier that a foreman told him to do the work when onsite state inspectors went to lunch at the 919-foot-long bridge, the second longest in the project.
“They were more worried about the money instead of public safety,” Lee said in December.