Poor communication, tribal damage plague Bertha's restart
SEATTLE -- Bertha isn't budging. Ten months in and the big gal has traveled just 1,000 feet.
Hundreds of emails, schematics, and documents obtained by a public records request detail confusion and finger pointing between the Washington Department of Transportation and Seattle Tunnel Partners in the aftermath of the blockage that stopped the boring machine.
The original stoppage was reported on December 5th of 2013, when Bertha hit steel pipe from an "unknown well." Washington Department of Transportation and Seattle Tunnel Partners say the blockage wore down parts of the cutters and seals. It was impossible to move forward without serious jeopardy to the machine.
War of words
That first report about the problem set off a public and private battle over blame. Formal letters flew back and forth almost immediately between WSDOT and STP, the consortium of construction companies contracted to dig the tunnel. STP sent a letter to blaming it for not disclosing the pipe's existence and that it was not identified in any contract documents.
WSDOT responded that "any such implication is incorrect."
Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson told the Problem Solvers that there are documents proving STP should have known about the pipe.
Even now, five months since Bertha stopped moving, STP and WSDOT cannot agree on exactly what caused this to happen.
'Confusion' over communication
While each side battled above ground, other issues plagued Bertha under the streets of Seattle.
In those critical hours and days of possible repair, records reveal communication problems at the mega project.
During a test drill on December 7th, a quality verification report said that after "several phone calls and much confusion" above-ground crews drilling down had to move their rigs because "the underground crew was going to try to advance the machine regardless of what was happening on the surface."
In another example, a full month after the stoppage an oversight supervisor raised concern, writing, "it appears that WSDOT and STP are not on the same page regarding what is expected from this process."
Another report shortly before Christmas details a bizarre incident during a family tour by one of the workers. After signing in his family, the worker wrote that a safety rep. made "threats with police escorting us off the site." The worker said guards made his family feel "like they were in a prison and I thought that is (sic) was very un-called (sic) for."
A lengthy chain of emails revealed that in early November, barges used in the project had damaged netting for Muckleshoot tribal fishermen in the Duwamish because there was not enough time for STP to follow the rules to tell the tribe.
WSDOT wrote, "(d)ue to the time sensitive nature of the work, STP was unable to follow the agreed to protocols for communications." The tribe said it have ancestral rights to fish along the Duwamish and have a long history of working with boats moving through the fishing grounds.
In this case, two nets were moved and one was damaged because as the records show, time was too tight to communicate.
"These latest moves were not provided to us and thus we could not alert the tribes," said one WSDOT email. Invoices show direct payments to the fishermen as required by the treaties.
WSDOT downplayed the impact because reparations only cost 700 dollars, but the mistake set off a call for better communication to do things right the first time.
In a statement, Secretary Peterson wrote: "As we build the world's largest bored tunnel, issues both large and small occur that requires WSDOT to hold the contractor accountable and protect community interests and the taxpayer's investment. When we encounter an issue, such as an unanticipated tribal net move due to Seattle Tunnel Partners' operations, we work to resolve it and ensure it does not happen again. In this case, WSDOT sent Seattle Tunnel Partners a directive to make sure a similar incident did not occur again. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe is an important partner in building this project and we will continue to work closely with them.
More than 15 projects in the Alaskan Way Viaduct Replacement Program have been successfully completed. There is $750 million worth of work underway at the tunnel portals and elsewhere along the SR 99 corridor. An outside panel of experts concluded in their 2014 report that they continue to be confident that the program is on course to be successfully completed. We intend to deliver this program to the people of Washington and protect their interests and investment."
The new tunnel is expected to open in November, 2016, a full ten months later than originally planned.