Pa. firm must pay $1.7 million in cement dispute

December 04, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A leading provider of construction cement was ordered yesterday to pay $1.7 million in damages to a Baltimore concrete firm after the cement company was accused of selling a substandard product later used in a college dormitory at the Johns Hopkins University.

Lawyers for the now-defunct concrete company, Metro Ready Mix Inc., said yesterday's jury verdict raised lingering questions about the practices of Essroc Cement Corp. and the structural soundness of highways, bridges and parking garages that have used its cement - a key ingredient in construction-grade concrete.

Among Metro's problematic contracts were runways at Dulles International Airport and a parking garage at John Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

"My client was concerned that someone was going to get killed," attorney Robert J. Weltchek said.

Lawyers for Metro accused Essroc of breach of contract after cement used in Metro concrete either had to be reinforced or ripped up on a variety of construction projects. Metro, saddled by the quality-control problems, eventually went out of business.

The jury in the monthlong trial in U.S. District Court in Baltimore may have been most impressed by a last-minute witness described as a whistleblower, lawyers for Metro said yesterday. A former truck driver working with the company came forward late in the trial and said he testified for the plaintiff that he saw Essroc employees knowingly load his rig with inferior cement.

In an interview yesterday, the cement truck driver, Mike Icenroad, 48, of Washington County, added that he was also provided falsified documents at times about his concrete's origins. Those papers said that the cement came from an Essroc plant in Martinsburg, W. Va., when, in fact, the load had come from a company plant in Pennsylvania, according to Icenroad.

"I didn't think it would hurt anything," Icenroad said.

Later, the truck driver said, he learned that a difference in the grade of cement could affect the structural soundness of a construction project. Saying the realization "really scared me," Icenroad said he quit the trucking company shortly after he had to vouch for the falsified paperwork.

Officials at Essroc, a large North American cement producer based in Nazareth, Pa., with almost 1,000 employees, declined to answer questions yesterday.

"We can't make any comment because it's a legal case," said Marco Barbesta, director of communications at Essroc.

The Johns Hopkins University has not experienced any problems with Charles Commons, two towers connected by a bridge that house 600 students and is anchored by a street-level Barnes & Noble bookstore.

"Concrete on projects of this kind is tested and inspected when it is poured. Any problems detected are taken care of immediately, as part of the construction process," Dennis O'Shea, a Hopkins spokesman, said. "We are aware of no residual problems."

The case started in 2004 when Metro Ready Mix, a certified minority-owned contractor, received work for large projects at Dulles, outside Washington, and Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center and the Johns Hopkins University, both in Baltimore.

Metro then arranged to buy the cement for its concrete from Essroc. Metro's owner, Sam Gupta, said his business relied on mix designs using a reliably consistent supply of cement from Essroc to ensure its strength.

"The way that I like to describe it is that cement is the flour and concrete is the bread," Gupta said yesterday. "If the mix is not right, the problem would be that the structure would collapse."

To double-check the strength of the concrete recipe used on projects, he said, project managers also prepare test cylinders from the same concrete. After curing the concrete for 28 days, the cylinder's contents are tested to see how strong the concrete is.

At the parking garage at Bayview, Gupta said, the poured concrete was so weak that it needed to be ripped up and removed.

Widespread problems with the concrete's durability at a variety of projects eventually led to the loss of several contracts and plunged Metro into insolvency, Gupta said. The company suffered millions of dollars in losses and has been out of business since January 2006, according to its owner.

"We just never suspected that the cement was the problem," Gupta said.

Documents found during discovery in the civil case showed that Essroc had been shortchanging its quality controls, according to court papers.

In court papers, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake wrote in April that "these [company] tests appear to show that Essroc's cement manufacturing process had some serious problems beginning in the middle of 2005."

matthew.dolan@baltsun.com

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