That grinding noise…

That grinding noise you hear is the sound of axes being sharpened.

I’ve been sitting on this item for a few days, hoping to get more information, but it doesn’t look like anything is forthcoming, so I’ll go with it now.

Remember early on in the Bay Bridge Bolt Botch when I said that omitting tests was not just common, but standard practice if done in a risk-based cost/benefit basis? What I said at the time was “I haven’t seen anything that would suggest that there were problems with the risk analysis or cost/benefit analysis done by Caltrans that led to the omission of hydrogen embrittlement testing, so it seems that they just got bitten by a lower-risk possibility.” Now we’re finding out that there was a problem.

According to the SF Chron, tests that could have revealed the problem bolts were requested, but the contractor who made them declined to conduct the tests.

Caltrans’ resident engineer directed tests to be done in October of 2008 that would have determined whether the bolts had microscopic cracks that would leave them vulnerable to hydrogen embrittlement. The contractor, however, responded a few days later that as a result of “informal communications between the parties”, no tests were required. “Informal communications” usually means “we had a phone conversation”; in my experience when used as the sole justification for something it’s often a code phrase for “we can’t really support this, so we’ll bluff a bit off the record and see if we can get away with it”.

There’s a place for informal discussion, but it needs to be followed up with formal communication. That place is exploration of possibilities. Once you reach a conclusion, you document that conclusion and how you arrived at it (my former cow-orkers – and I hope most people who have anything to do with QA – will recognize this: if you need to reduce the scope of testing, first you discuss it face to face or via phone, then you write up the problem, what you intend to do about it, and what the risk is). In this case, apparently there was no follow up at all. Caltrans did not formally agree or disagree with the contractor’s position that no tests were required, nor was the content of the “informal communication” ever documented.

Remember also when I said a couple of weeks later that the axes were being sharpened and the finger pointing was starting? The Chronicle article cites the Caltrans engineer in question as “Gary Pursell, then Caltrans’ resident engineer”. What they don’t mention is that he is now apparently “Division Chief-Design East” for Caltrans. Think he might have answers to questions about the bolts, what testing was omitted, and why?

For that matter, do you think he might be able to answer our original question about how a design that doesn’t permit repairs to be made got approved?

Gary, want to speak up before you become a scapegoat ex-Caltrans engineer?

2 thoughts on “That grinding noise…

  1. If you want to rake some further, identical, muck, the new pontoons for the under-reconstruction Rt. 520 Bridge, connecting Seattle and Bellevue, have been found to have cracks,which admit water to the pontoon innards. Everyone admits that that just might make it harder to keep the bridge above water, but it seems to have been nobody’s oversight, in either sense of the word..


    • One botched bridge build is my limit for regular reporting. I can’t say I’m surprised. I note that WSDOT is a little ahead of Caltrans in sharpening the axes, though. I see multiple reports that WSDOT has fired one engineer and demoted another. Given the lag time between the problem being found and the disciplinary action, I’d guess that Gary has about 6 months of employment left.


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