Investigation uncovers widespread leaks on new 520 pontoons

SEATTLE -- Insiders call it a cover-up: one that could ultimately cost taxpayers millions. A KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation has uncovered evidence of widespread leaks and cracks in pontoons destined for the new $4.6 billion 520 bridge. Evidence that has important ramifications for taxpayers and anyone who drives the 520 Bridge.

Around the world, Western Washington is the acknowledged leader in building floating bridges, from Hood Canal, to Interstate 90, to the 520 bridge. And yet the Problem Solvers have uncovered construction flaws in every single one of the first six pontoons built in Aberdeen by Kiewit Construction for the new bridge.

In pontoon, after pontoon, after pontoon, we uncovered evidence of leaks in dozens of the interior compartments - called cells. We obtained thousands of pages of public records, and hours of video inspections inside the first six pontoons built in Aberdeen and floated to Lake Washington.

What we found is far different from what the Washington Department of Transportation told us just last month when we asked about a garden-hose-sized leak in Pontoon "V" and about the water "weeping" through a wall in Pontoon "W". When we asked 520 Program Director Julie Meredith if that was the only leak they'd identified she answered, "That is the only leak that we've identified."

In fact, according to videos shot in August and just released to the Problem Solvers, all six of the pontoons have experienced leaks -- as many as 36 cells leaking water either from Lake Washington or from water intentionally placed inside to keep the pontoons floating evenly. But WSDOT told us, "That is the only leak that we've identified." We asked how many walls have leaked. Meredith: "There's a couple." Now WSDOT says that was variously a miscommunication or a misunderstanding.

Cracks in all six of first pontoons

Two separate WSDOT insiders - who asked to remain anonymous - tell us they've never seen this many leaks and what they called "extensive cracking" in brand new pontoons. The videos we obtained include sections where an inspector videos chipped concrete on the exterior of a pontoon and says, "It's already been exposed to seawater and the rebar is rusting."

KOMO News uncovered documentation that all six of the first pontoons developed extensive cracks while concrete hardened or cured. We found one drawing showing dozens of snaking lines - called "crack-mapping" on the top and bottom slabs of one of the pontoons. And the accompanying engineering report found that the, "cracking appears to be similar in all six pontoons" out of Aberdeen.

John Reilly headed up WSDOT's Expert Review Panel. We asked if there was any way to know if the extensive cracking in the pontoons is why we're seeing them leak now they're in Lake Washington. "Could be, could be - most logical connection."

A consultant's report in July raised concerns about whether the repairs could remain watertight. And by late August, internal WSDOT e-mails verified that many of the crack repairs "are brittle and have already failed."

"If they're already leaking that's troublesome." State Representative Mike Armstrong is the ranking member for the House Transportation Committee. He's disturbed by what we uncovered and that WSDOT hasn't been more open. "We have to make sure that we have it fixed - now - before we start building these other what - probably 30 pontoons?"

Both our insiders say the problems with these first pontoons already undermines the structural integrity of the new $4.6 billion bridge. They point to the I-90 bridge, where one problem pontoon being rehabbed by contractors sank during a severe storm in 1990, pulling down several other bridge sections. Since then, annual inspections monitor cracks and leaks. In the most recent I-90 inspection, only seven out of 2008 pontoon cells had measurable water inside, and those spans are 20- and 30-years-old. The first six brand new pontoons for the 520 already have at least 36 cells that have leaked.

WSDOT would not confirm how many pontoons have leaked, Secretary Paula Hammond responding, "whether they are or aren't, we haven't accepted the pontoons and we won't accept the pontoons until we know they meet the contract specifications."

Contractor makes $90,000 per day's delay

Then there's the money. Insiders tell the Problem Solvers that late pontoons are costing taxpayers millions. The whole financial deal, with two independent contracts but one primary contractor, seems to favor contractor Kiewit at the expense of taxpayers.

You might remember Kiewit from our Problem Solver investigation last spring where we caught their employees drinking on the job.

Here's how the pontoon costs got so screwy: Every day Kiewit in Aberdeen is late with pontoons, they owe the state $10,000. But that also makes the pontoons late getting to Lake Washington, and on that contract the state has to pay Kiewit $100,000 a day. So every late day, parent company Kiewit makes an extra $90,000 even though the problems started with Kiewit's other contract in Aberdeen.

Transportation Secretary Paula Hammond wouldn't confirm the dollars in the contract but did say the need to get the bridge built by their 2014 deadline dictated the terms of the contracts. "We took a risk and we took a very aggressive schedule in order to make sure that we can replace this bridge."

WSDOT says it can't give us an overall estimate of added costs due to late pontoons and repairs, but the records they gave the Problem Solvers show 74 days' worth of delays and at least $2 million in repairs - adding up to nearly $9 million to taxpayers.

"I'd like to know who came up with that plan," Armstrong said. "Because it doesn't seem like a plan that's gonna benefit the citizens of the state of Washington."

Secretary Hammond also just announced she is reorganizing oversight of the pontoon construction with a new director at the Aberdeen plant as well as moving engineering staff to headquarters in Olympia. Those moves are intended to strengthen the project team. Our sources tell us they believe some of the changes are an attempt to control information leaks to the Problem Solvers.

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