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SF Bay Bridge, Partially Built With Chinese Parts and Labor, Experiencing Dangerous Bolt Failures

SF Bay Bridge 2013

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In June of 2011, we questioned the logic of using Chinese steel and labor on the massive San Francisco Bay Bridge renovation project.  The call for homegrown job-creation was as audible as at any time in President Obama’s tenure and the need for bolstering U.S. manufacturing was no less pressing.

We weren’t alone in raising an American eyebrow. The New York Times explained that concerns about this long-range labor might have well been well-founded:

American steelworker unions have disparaged the Bay Bridge contract by accusing the state of California of sending good jobs overseas and settling for what they deride as poor-quality Chinese steel. Industry groups in the United States and other countries have raised questions about the safety and quality of Chinese workmanship on such projects. Indeed, China has had quality control problems ranging from tainted milk to poorly built schools.

This isn’t one of those situations where you want to be in the position of saying, “I told you so.” After all, the safety of millions of commuters and Bay Area residents was at stake with this bridge’s rebuild.

Sadly, problems are now mounting. Earlier this month, 32 bolts snapped and put the bridge’s Labor Day opening in jeopardy. This scare brought about a CALTRANS investigation which found that the methods used during construction had not followed guidelines set forth by experts.

A team of Caltrans engineers and metallurgical experts have spent the past two months trying to determine why 32 of 96 high-strength steel bolts installed in a key seismic feature on the new bridge suffered from hydrogen embrittlement and who is responsible.

Documents released by Caltrans this week reveal that the bridge design team ordered high-strength bolts for the seismic shear keys and other areas of the bridge, despite warnings by the American Society for Testing and Materials group that hot-dip galvanizing the stronger grade of steel could make it susceptible to hydrogen embrittlement — a condition where hydrogen atoms invade the steel and make it brittle and subject to fracture..

Now, as officials come forward with their findings, bolts along the bridge’s bicycle path are beginning to fail and the public’s confidence in CALTRANS is deteriorating.  In explaining the new set of failures, officials said the problems revolved around the quality of work done on the project.

“It is not a bolt problem,” said Caltrans spokesman Will Shuck. “The bolt has to slide free, but the welding prevents it from doing so.

“The caps and welds have to be removed,” Shuck said, “and any place where the bolt broke, they have to be replaced.”

Every bolt holding the railing in place will have to be inspected, and many are likely to have to be replaced, Shuck said. He didn’t have an estimate for how many such bolts are on the span, but conceded the total was at least in the hundreds.

Shuck added, “It will be 100 percent fixed before they open that bicycle path. I’ll tell you that much.”

So let’s get this straight. The first failure was a result of the parts. The second failure was a result of the labor. What else is there?

Repairing the newly discovered problems is going add to the multi-million dollar cost of sorting out the first 32 bolts.  Bob Bea, a civil engineering professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley, commented on CALTRANS’ oversight at the workplace:

“Most of these things people do without malice,” Bea said. “To these welders, working on the bridge, they figure, ‘We better tie these suckers down.’ The question is, who is watching the welders?”

Ostensibly, the use of foreign steel and foreign workers on the San Francisco Bay Bridge renovation was intended to save money. Not only was this an ignoble reason to outsource, it has turned out to be economically detrimental. Spending piles up while trust in a structure of central importance to the region’s livelihood wanes.  Until all of the facts come in — facts which will cost even more money to ascertain — the blame for these failures cannot be squarely placed on the imported workers and materials. What is certain, however, is that red flags regarding the safety of such an approach were ignored along with the screams of American workers and industry leaders who wanted desperately to do their city and country proud in rebuilding this shining symbol of Northwestern culture.  


One Comment on “SF Bay Bridge, Partially Built With Chinese Parts and Labor, Experiencing Dangerous Bolt Failures”

  1. You always get what you pay for.

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