Mass. AG: There Was ‘Substantial Dispute’ Over Big Dig Ceiling Method

By Brooke Donald | July 19, 2006

Investigators probing the fatal collapse of a ceiling in Boston’s Big Dig underground freeway leading to the airport have discovered documents showing there was a “substantial dispute” over whether the design of the tunnel was adequate to hold the weight of the ceiling panels, the attorney general said.

Four of the 3-ton panels collapsed onto a car July 10, killing Milena Del Valle, 38, of Boston, and injuring her husband. Since then, engineers have found hundreds of places within the connector tunnel, a main passage to Boston’s Logan International Airport, where the bolts are not properly secured.

Attorney General Tom Reilly, who refused to give specifics, said he did not know how the dispute was resolved. He said the designer, the installer and Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the company overseeing the Big Dig project, were involved but would not say who raised the questions.

“There was a substantial dispute whether the design was adequate to hold the weight expected,” Reilly said.

As investigations and testing on the tunnel system continued, commuters on Monday got their glimpse of the increased traffic hassles that officials say could endure for two months, at least.

A second tunnel ramp, which connects Interstate 90 west to Interstate 93, was closed Sunday after testing showed dozens of problems with the bolts holding up the ceiling. That ramp had been used as part of a detour around the accident scene.

Gov. Mitt Romney has called the ceiling problems a “systemic failure.” He met with congressional, state and city leaders to outline his plan for ensuring safety of the roadways and tunnels, and for easing traffic congestion in the meantime.

After the meeting, Sens. John Kerry and Edward M. Kennedy endorsed the governor’s plans.

Kennedy said congressional committees are making plans to hold hearings into the tunnel collapse and the overall Big Dig project. No hearings had been scheduled.

“We want to make sure the issue of safety is front and center,” Kennedy said.

Kerry said the traffic jams resulting from the closures demonstrate the value of the project.

“One thing is for certain: The congestion that we’re seeing and the incredible backup really is a statement to the importance of this project and to the difference it has made to the lives of people in this community,” Kerry said.

State and federal investigators have focused their attention on the bolts and epoxy glue used to hold the drop-ceiling system in place in the tunnels. Each of the concrete slabs suspended above the roadway weighs three tons.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Highway Administration and the Massachusetts Highway Department conducted pull tests Monday of selected bolts in the tunnel where the panels fell to determine the characteristics of the epoxy used.

Pull tests are pending on bolts in the Ted Williams Tunnel, which remains open and has a different ceiling design which used lighter panels.

The $14.6 billion Big Dig buried the old elevated Central Artery that used to slice through the city, replacing it with a series of tunnels. Although it’s been considered an engineering marvel, the most expensive highway project in U.S. history also has also been plagued by leaks, falling debris, cost overruns, delays and problems linked to faulty construction.

Reilly is leading a state criminal investigation and has said that both the contractor, Modern Continental Construction Co., and the project overseer, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, were told in 1999 that five ceiling bolts had broken free during testing. He questioned whether a prescribed fix had been made.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff has defended the construction technique and said it was widely and successfully used throughout the construction industry.

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