Questions raised about potential hazards at local buildings

SEATTLE -- A KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation raises serious questions about potential health and safety hazards at several Western Washington public buildings. Our investigation found evidence of missing earthquake protection, improper sewer connections and potentially hazardous water systems. The Problem Solvers traced the concerns to one local contractor that's been awarded multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded contracts.

"Right where the passengers go through screening is where the piping is improperly supported."

That's what Ken Wilms, a journeyman plumber, told us as we walked through the Bellingham Airport and he showed us through the expansion project where he worked last year. Wilms turned to the Problem Solvers with a list of what he calls both code violations and dangerous plumbing practices. And he says it's not just the airport expansion, but other multi-million dollar public projects including Meridian High School near Bellingham and Snohomish School District's brand new Aquatic Center. Wilms told us, "it can make people sick, some of this stuff, and not to mention the safety hazards that some of this stuff imposes."

Wilms admits he was laid off, but insists he's not a disgruntled worker but a whistleblower. He says he brought these concerns up long before he was laid off. "I went to my union, I went to Diamond B, the CEO of the company, and it could have all been fixed and instead I was laid off for bringing these allegations forward, in my opinion."

To investigate Wilms' claims, the Problem Solvers enlisted the help of Pacific Northwest Construction Consultants. Its president, Brian Daniels, is a construction defects expert often called to testify in court. Daniels examined Wilms photographs and interviewed him extensively and, based on that, says there could be huge problems. "If you were the building owner," Daniels told us, "I would come to you and I would say, I think we have some issues here we really need to take a look at."

For instance, Wilms alleges Diamond B didn't use enough bracing to keep overhead water and natural gas pipes (See photo) at both the Bellingham airport and Meridian High School in place during an earthquake. His pictures at the airport show tie wire used instead of heavy duty clamps (See photos: 1, 2, 3, 4), and he says Diamond B used buckets of leftover seismic bracing (See photos: 1, 2, 3) that came from completely different kinds of buildings and are not interchangeable.

Our expert and other industry sources agree not protecting water and natural gas lines like this is not up to code and is a serious safety hazard. "So if you have an earthquake or a movement of any kind it could be a hazard." When we asked what type of hazard Daniels replied, "Structurally? It could fall."

At the Snohomish school district's Aquatic Center, Wilms says his photos document pipe that was cemented when it was too cold (See photos: 1, 2), that trenches were filled with native rock that could pierce pipe (See photos: 1, 2, 3, 4), that pipe that runs through concrete block walls wasn't insulated (See photo), and a host of other alleged code violations (See photos: 1, 2, 3, 4) that, in addition to making the system prone to leaks - could also expel sewer gases up through floor drains. Daniels told us what could happen, "then all of a sudden you have gasses coming up through sinks, you have gasses coming up through floor drains." And he added, "is it a health hazard? I would say yes."

We took the results of our investigation to the Snohomish School District and Spokeswoman Kristin Foley. "These violations and these pictures are concerning." The Aquatic Center is a $21 million project that will serve both the school district and the general public. Foley added, "when these kinds of things are alleged, clearly, you know we're going to look into it. And we'll do what we need to do."

Then there's this paste, called flux (See photos: 1, 2), which is used when connecting copper pipes. Multiple sources tell us it was used at both the airport and at Meridian High. While its rating meets national standards for drinking water, both Wilms and Daniels say it does not meet the Uniform Plumbing Code for drinking water systems because of its corrosiveness. Daniels added, "It's a huge health hazard - all of a sudden you've got little children going up to a fountain and they're drinking and this is still in there, in the whole system."

The Problem Solvers went to the subcontractor Diamond B in search of answers. Diamond B's General Manager Pete Chapman would not talk to us on camera but did agree to meet, off-camera, with their attorney present to answer a pre-set list of concerns. They allowed us to photograph "mock-ups" of the type of seismic bracing they insist they used (See photos: 1, 2, 3, 4). Chapman told us those tie wires were only temporary and have been replaced with appropriate clamps. He insisted the flux paste was perfectly safe for the water systems, although he says in an abundance of caution they've switched and are now using different pastes.

Bottom line, we asked Diamond B if they cut corners on any of these jobs. General Manager Chapman said, "absolutely, positively not," and that if they discovered anyone had, "they would be gone."

Expert Brian Daniels insists there's enough evidence that the public agencies involved should start doing invasive testing. "It's not going to hurt to take a look at it; it will cause harm if you don't."

Meantime, construction at the the Aquatic Center and the Bellingham airport continues daily.

We have to add that city and county building inspectors signed off on all of these projects. It was only after the Problem Solvers got involved that the airport and both the Meridian and Snohomish School Districts all launched investigations. The airport has determined that Diamond B did not use adequate seismic bracing. All three agencies say they're working with their General Contractors to ensure that taxpayers get the projects they've paid for.