Whistleblower: Formal probe needed into 520 bridge dangers

SEATTLE - A state whistleblower says construction problems on the new 520 floating bridge pose a "danger to public safety," and he's calling for a formal investigation.

A KOMO News Problem Solvers investigation continues to uncover on-going issues with cracks and leaks in the massive concrete pontoons that will hold up the bridge. Now the whistleblower wants the state auditor to step in.

When the Problem Solvers toured the Aberdeen pontoon construction site last month, there were already significant signs of concrete cracks in the second group of pontoons. The whistleblower, in a formal complaint to the Auditor's Office and the state's Board of Professional Engineers, says these kinds of construction problems are the result of a "systemic breakdown of engineering responsibilities and management within WSDOT."

The whistleblower complaint referred to the Problem Solvers investigation for additional evidence, while also alleging that - for the 520 bridge project - this breakdown has caused danger to public health and safety, gross waste of public funds and gross mismanagement.

It's a huge case to drop on the desk of brand new State Auditor Troy Kelley.

"We take all these complaints very seriously. This obviously isn't just a serious complaint, but it's a broad, a big issue. So that's obviously at the top of our list," said Kelley.

The whistleblower says the problems with cracking and leaking pontoons is the result of WSDOT upper management "condoning and encouraging" engineers to illegally sign off on another engineer's designs.

The complaint includes an internal WSDOT memo from the business manager for the Pontoon Construction Project. That memo uses a flow chart to show what's supposed to happen: contractor Kiewit is supposed to take several different design elements, pull them together - or integrate them - in one plan, and then produce the final design and construction plans to build the pontoons.

But the memo adds that since this hasn't been followed, it's resulted in "compromises to the structural integrity of the pontoons."

The auditor plans to investigate in tandem with the state's Board of Professional Engineers.

"We do need that expertise and it's not all within this office," says Kelley. "So yes, we would have to work with that other agency that has that expertise, and that's a key issue."

But the investigation could take time - perhaps as much as a year. The whistleblower hopes that simply by filing his complaint the governor or the Legislature will step in to act more quickly.

Completion of the $4.1 billion bridge is already delayed by about six months; it's now not scheduled to open until mid-2015.