KOMO investigators uncover more problems with Kiewit Construction

SEATTLE -- Drinking on the job, leaks and cracks with the new 520 Bridge pontoons, and now the Problem Solvers have uncovered alleged construction flaws at Safeco Field and with the iconic Bay Bridge in California.

All of the problems lead back to the contractor in charge of the most expensive construction project in state history: rebuilding the 520 bridge. Kiewit Construction has been at the center of our ongoing Problem Solver investigation into allegations of shoddy, even potentially dangerous work on the 520 bridge.

The KOMO 4 Problem Solvers have now learned that the California legislature has launched its own investigation because of major questions about Kiewit's construction of the iconic Bay Bridge.

When the destructive Loma Prieta earthquake hit California's Bay area in 1989, bridges became a tragic and visible weakness, including the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, a critical lifeline for the region.

Twenty-three years later, the new east span under construction is designed to withstand another major earthquake. But one year away from the Bay Bridge completion, Sacramento Bee Investigative Reporter Charles Piller has uncovered critical questions about the safety of its construction and the primary contractor - Kiewit Construction.

"There is a big uncertainty left in the structural stability of that bridge," Piller said.

In particular, uncertainties about the stability of the single high tower that stabilizes the span's west end. Thirteen concrete piles form the base of that tower -- concrete that required testing. But when Piller went looking, half of the test reports were missing. Only after Piller started asking questions were the test results released.

He says one test was never found and another showed serious flaws.

"Olson Engineering found a massive section of what appears to be unset concrete," he said. "The key question is - why did Kiewit withhold that report?"

Additionally, Piller says California's Department of Transportation - CalTrans - has now uncovered test problems with two other piles, meaning four of the 13 structural elements Kiewit built are question marks.

"And what we have in the Bay Bridge and the tower foundation are now four problems that are critical problems," he said.

Other problems found

"Tell us what we got for six and a half billion dollars," California State Senator Mark DeSaulnier said following the Bee's investigation.

DeSaulnier has called for California's legislative analyst office to review the concerns about the Bay Bridge safety and Kiewit Construction.

"If they have hidden information in the testing, if they've failed the testing, that's what the extra investigation that we are going through right now hopefully will find out for us," he said.

But Kiewit also had problems with foundations for another California structure. Piller says CalTrans rejected nearly 80 percent of the concrete piles Kiewit built for the Benicia Martinez Bridge.

"That is a level of quality that is so far below the norm for building these kinds of structures, that you have to ask yourself why were they hired?" he said.

So are there parallels between the construction problems in California and other public projects Kiewit is building in Washington state?

Long before Kiewit started work on the 520 project, they were the general contractor building Safeco Field -- home of the Seattle Mariners. But in 2006, the Mariners sued Kiewit for $3 million, alleging construction defects -- problems with the paint meant to preserve the steel beams. That suit is under appeal. Just last week on another local construction job - contractor Kiewit announced problems with the planned opening of the new South Park Bridge: it will now be delayed until 2014, causing additional hardship for area businesses and residents.

With the 520 Bridge pontoons, a Problem Solver investigation uncovered dozens of hours of videotape inspections inside the massive concrete structures, revealing that all six of the first pontoons built in Aberdeen have leaked. One video inspection noted rebar on the outside of one pontoon is already rusting where it was exposed to seawater.

We obtained thousands of pages of internal documents through the public records act: The records detailed the extensive cracking and that many of the crack repairs, "are brittle and have already failed." The records note that critical rebar in three of the biggest pontoons is,"missing", that the contractor opted to, "proceed at risk," in spite of that, and two of WSDOT's own engineers found that it was, "not structurally acceptable." In fact one engineer wrote that Kiewit is, "taking a huge gamble with a critical public asset."

California's State Senator DeSaulnier: "With the concrete and the pilings - specific to your project? There's a pattern there."

Late Monday, Kiewit responded by e-mail saying it, "firmly stand behind the safety and quality of work we've done on the many bridges we've built in North America, including the SR-520 pontoon bridge and those you reference in California." Kiewit adds that they also, "take any quality issues associated with the SR-520 project very seriously." And, "we are committed to delivering a safe, high-quality final product."