Warning on bridge work was rejected

State engineer did not heed subcontractor's concern regarding use of chemical

December 08, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A state engineer's rejection of advice from a subcontractor in January 2002 might have contributed to the failure of more than $7 million in concrete work on the Bay Bridge and to the weeks of excruciating lane closings it took to fix the problem this fall.

A memo obtained by The Sun shows that a project manager for Pioneer Contracting Co. of Odenton warned that using a chemical as directed by the Maryland Transportation Authority could break the bond between layers of concrete applied to the westbound span as part of a $70 million deck rehabilitation project.

One day later, according to another document, a state engineer rejected the advice.

In September last year, the agency would reverse course and order contractors not to use the same chemical, but by then the cracks that would force the authority to redo more than half the repaving work had already begun to appear.

The memo raises questions about whether the state will be able to hold Pioneer or Cianbro Corp., the Maine-based general contractor, liable for the cost of repairing the botched concrete work. Transportation officials are investigating who is to blame for the failure.

Transportation Secretary Robert L. Flanagan, chairman of the authority, declined to speculate about the memo's significance. He said information about the decision to go with the chemical, made a year before he and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. took office, was "incomplete."

Pioneer's lawyer, Mark S. Dachille, contended yesterday that the memo shows the company "performed its work in compliance with the planned specifications [and] that the cause of the cracking is not due to anything Pioneer did or failed to do."

Dachille pointed to the conclusions of a consultant hired by Pioneer to inspect the work.

In a letter Thursday to company lawyers, chemist Harold L. Zeliger of West Charlton, N.Y., said the failure is a result of flawed project specifications and not the subcontractor's work. He blamed the cracking on the failure of two epoxy layers -- one designed to restore the subsurface and the other to adhere to the new concrete -- to bond properly.

Zeliger noted that the use of the two epoxy types was mandated in the state's construction specifications.

Pioneer project manager Mitesh Dave wrote a memo to Cianbro on Jan. 21, 2002, asking for a waiver of the requirement that it use the restoring agent. He warned that it "will interfere with subsequent application of the bonding agent."

Transportation authority engineer David A. LaBella denied the waiver in a note.

"Rejected. Contractor shall use both the restorer and the bonding agent as specified. Has been done w/success on numerous projects. DAL," the note reads.

The specifications for a state construction project are generally prepared by an outside design engineer. It could not be determined yesterday whether LaBella consulted with Wallace Montgomery & Associates, the project's design engineer, before rejecting Pioneer's request.

A spokesman for Wallace Montgomery could not be reached. The transportation authority declined to make LaBella available to comment, on the advice of agency lawyers.

A preliminary study conducted for the authority by the engineering consultant O'Connell & Lawrence also pointed to problems with the restoring agent but said its use was not the sole cause of the cracking. That study also said the chemical may have been applied at temperatures below the manufacturer's recommendations -- a conclusion less favorable to the contractors.

State records show Pioneer officials and state inspectors clashed often late last year about issues surrounding the temperature of the just-poured concrete. On multiple occasions, inspectors said Pioneer was failing to meet its requirements.

Flanagan said the preliminary study did not reach any definitive conclusions about liability and said he is waiting for the comprehensive report, which is expected in late January.

In the meantime, the transportation chief said, he has ordered the authority to conduct a comprehensive peer review of its engineering department "to ensure that the department meets the highest standards."

The Bay Bridge resurfacing problems have had an effect on the top ranks of the authority. Shortly after the bridge problems were reported in September, Thomas L. Osborne Sr. resigned under pressure as its chief executive.

In October, Flanagan ordered a series of lane closings to expedite the work of repairing the concrete. For four weeks, commuters and others who use the Bay Bridge faced long delays as the authority closed all but one westbound lane for most of the day during the week.

All of the bridge's lanes are now open, but work will resume next year.

The closings brought home the state's dependence on its only quick link between Central Maryland and the Eastern Shore. Flanagan is scheduled to hold a news conference today to discuss the demand for additional bay crossing capacity.

To see the letters, go to baltimoresun.com/concrete.

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