WSDOT secrets: Inside the 520 Bridge investigation

SEATTLE -- Putting together an investigation into a major public works project like the 520 bridge is a complex process involving expert sources, numerous interviews and poring through literally thousands of public records. As a result of the KOMO 4 Problem Solver investigation we've discovered that all six of the first concrete pontoons built by prime contractor Kiewit Construction in Aberdeen developed leaks once they were towed to Lake Washington. And now some experts are concerned about the structural integrity of those pontoons and their ability to withstand a severe windstorm.

The Washington State Department of Transportation says it has been transparent in the process of revealing the problems with these pontoons whereas numerous sources and their own documents tell a somewhat different tale. Now we want to open up the process of our investigation so you can see many of the thousands of public records we relied on for evidence.

Some of the most important public records are the videotaped inspections of the pontoons after they were taken out of the dry dock basin where they were built in Aberdeen and floated, first in Grays Harbor and then ultimately towed to Lake Washington where they are now being hooked together to form the floating platform for the new bridge.

On October 19, the WSDOT Public Records Division gave us 27 DVDs containing hundreds of hours of video inspections as the result of a disclosure request we made on September 10. We've strung together just a few of those video inspections here, some from each one of the six pontoons which are designated T, U, V, W and VNW and VSW.

Pontoon U

(See videos from Pontoons T, V, W and VNW and VSW)

It's important to note that we'd originally requested these videos at the end of August; here is the string of our e-mail request to the head of WSDOT Communications, Steve Pierce, saying he'll send us a disc.

A week later, this is how he responded, telling us WSDOT had posted five single videos, not 27 discs' worth, onto its website and we could access them there.

Additionally all audio had been edited out of the videos.

In mid-September WSDOT told us it only had one leak, identified in video as an internal leak in Pontoon V. Aside from all the other video evidence the Problem Solvers were waiting for on the other pontoons, there was also this diagram that shows there were leaks, identified in green in the document below, into at least 12 interior cells or compartments within Pontoon V.

Another important set of records include reports and/or investigations by experts either internally or hired by WSDOT or contractor Kiewit. The first is a report by the firm Buckland & Taylor, hired by Kiewit, to assess the cracking and spalling (concrete damage) created when the pontoons went through a process called post-tensioning, which is designed to strengthen the overall structure.

Pontoon designers within WSDOT put together a response to the B&T report. Both of these reports are highly technical in nature.

In August, an expert panel hired by WSDOT, released it's own report and in simple terms concluded that if contractor Kiewit closely followed the original design drawings by WSDOT and the concrete curing methods outlined by a previous test project then there should be no repeat of the problems experienced with the first pontoons.

Many of the problems with the concrete damage to the pontoons have been attributed to a "design flaw" by everyone from Secretary of Transportation Paula Hammond to Governor Chris Gregoire. The question is, where did the design flaws originate?

The pontoon construction is being built under what's called a "Design-Build" contract. As outlined in this 2009 e-mail before the contract was awarded, the successful bidder will do much of the final engineering for the pontoons. Numerous e-mails from contractor Kiewit point fingers at WSDOT for design problems.

But WSDOT internal communications show serious concerns about the level of design work being performed by Kiewit. Finally there is this report by a WSDOT engineer outlining where they believe contractor Kiewit has not performed all tasks required by the contract.

To try to get to the bottom of the design issue, we've asked to speak to the two main WSDOT engineers who, according to the documents we've received, are raising questions about the work performed by Kiewit: Jugesh Kapur and Patrick Clarke. We understand Kapur is the head of WSDOT's Bridges and Structures Division and he has been used as a spokesman for projects in the past. Clarke is listed as the Design Supervisor for the Pontoon Construction Project. Sources informed us last summer that Clarke had been removed from oversight at the Aberdeen casting basin, though WSDOT denied that in an interview in September.

Our requests to interview both men have been denied by WSDOT. We were told it would not be "appropriate."

Another reason to interview Clarke; his e-mails also raised the question of missing rebar connections called "hook bars" that are supposed to strengthen the connections between pontoons. WSDOT says it will not accept the pontoons until these missing bars are fixed but we've seen no documentation that WSDOT designers have approved any structural fix for this.

Another important section of public records includes the photos that document the concrete damage before the pontoons were floated out of the casting basin.

In addition to extensive cracking there was also what's called 'spalling' where sections of concrete break or crumble away; there was concrete damage with literally every one of the first six pontoons. The cracks and ultimate leaks once the pontoons were floated spurred a series of e-mails regarding repairs.

These records represent only a fraction of the documents obtained by the Problem Solvers through the course of our investigation, but they are a representation of some of the most critical pieces.


KOMO News will continue looking into the problems with the new 520 Bridge pontoons. If you have information you'd like to share, please contact us by email or phone at 206-404-4350.

Have a question or comment about our investigation into the 520 Bridge construction? Post in the comments below and Tracy Vedder and Executive Producer Sarah Garza will be responding through the day on Friday.