FOIed emails show engineers forgot about a serious flaw until it was too late to fix properly. They then forgot that they had forgotten.
AFTER STALLING FOR SIX MONTHS, the City of Victoria finally released documents that provide details about why the lifting section of the new Johnson Street Bridge had to be repaired before it was even installed. “Repair,” by the way, is the word used by the engineers involved. The records the City released include emails from Ryan Andrews, PCL’s project manager, to private consultant Jonathan Huggett, whom the City has been paying about $300,000 a year to watch over Victoria taxpayers’ interests on the project. PCL is the Edmonton-headquartered company the City contracted to build the bridge in 2013.
The released records show Huggett and another engineer misled public officials about the circumstances that led to the need for the premature repair. In turn, those public officials, including Mayor Lisa Helps, misled the public.
As you may recall, our January story pointed out that a one-metre by one-metre steel plate had been bolted to the underside of each of the new bridge’s 50-foot-diameter rings at the 12 o’clock position. The plates were not part of the intended design, and appeared to be a last-minute addition needed to reinforce some structural weakness in the rings. For our story we contacted Huggett and Helps for information about what had necessitated the plates.
A close-up of the large bolted-on plates that made a last-minute and unexpected appearance on Victoria's brand-new $115-million bridge
Huggett’s response to our questions at the time produced little factual information. Mayor Helps ignored our questions about whether she and council had been advised about the plates. Following publication of our story, Helps issued a statement through facebook claiming our story “contained serious factual errors and inaccuracies.” Her statement had apparently been created by then acting City Manager Jocelyn Jenkins, with Huggett’s guidance. Keith Griesing, a professional engineer with Hardesty & Hanover, the company that engineered the lifting section of the bridge, wrote a letter to the City explaining how the problem that led to the repair had been discovered. Griesing denied any responsibility for the circumstances that led to the bolted-on plates and blamed the Chinese fabricator.
In the six months since then, Helps and the City were unable to provide any examples of “factual errors and inaccuracies” in our original story. However, after receiving the records we requested by FOI, I am able to report that I did make a factual error. The size of the plates are actually six feet by six feet—almost four times as large as we reported. But the emails from Andrews to Huggett paint a rather different story than that told by Huggett, Helps, and Griesing.
In two emails from Andrews to Huggett, Andrews appealed to Huggett to intervene with Hardesty & Hanover to hasten resolution of a serious issue that became known as “NCR 155.” That referred to four weld access holes in each ring described in a non-conformance report (NCR) by Atema dated January 4, 2017. Atema was the company performing PCL’s quality-control inspections at the steel fabrication facility in China where the lifting section was built.
Atema’s report recorded that the weld access holes were “discovered” on December 9, 2016. The concern about the small holes, not openly stated in the Atema report, was that their location and physical nature would concentrate stress and could eventually lead to the formation of fatigue cracks in the rings. Such fatigue cracks could threaten the structural integrity of the bridge’s superstructure.
In Andrews’ first email to Huggett about the issue, which he sent on March 31, 2017 following a meeting with Hardesty & Hanover that day, Andrews wrote: “For a brief recap, you heard H&H mention this has been a known issue for over a year, yet it wasn’t communicated to PCL…until December 2016 at which point the NCR was initiated…”
I’ve added the italicization in that sentence to draw your attention to that point. It shows that Andrews told Huggett on March 31, 2017 that the problem created by the weld access holes “had been a known issue for over a year.” That would mean the problem had been evident to Hardesty & Hanover before March 31, 2016.
Both Huggett and Griesing have, in their separate public explanations of the issue, implied that the problem was discovered in December 2016 as a result of Atema’s diligent inspection and quality control.
So what’s the big deal about the eight months missing from both Huggett’s and Griesing’s explanations? During those eight months, as well as during the four months between rediscovery of the problem and the date when Andrews emailed Huggett, work had continued on the rings. That year of work made it more difficult to fix the problem properly.
Neither Huggett nor Griesing responded to requests for an explanation of why those eight months had disappeared from their public accounts of what happened. Perhaps there is no reasonable explanation for why the problem wasn’t addressed as soon as it was first identified. It appears the problem was simply forgotten. Did someone then wake up in the middle of a dark, December night and have an OMG! moment? How embarrassing this must be for those involved: Engineers forgetting that they forgot.
But that’s not the full extent to which Huggett and Griesing misled the City and the public.
Andrews’ March 31, 2017 email to Huggett continued: “Now it also needs to be noted that this so called ‘non-conforming’ condition has no design details and no comments were made on the shop drawings. We have not raised issue of this prior due to our interest in just getting it repaired and over with, but being that it continues to linger it now has significant impacts for both PCL and the City—those being time and money.”
Andrews, then, disputed that the weld access holes were the fault of the fabricator. He believed they were a result of design details and comments not being provided by the designer—Hardesty & Hanover.
Indeed, Atema’s NCR 155 included notations that pointed out the lack of clarity in the shop drawings for the weld access holes. Ultimate responsibility for approving those shop drawings lay with Griesing.
Martin Bache, a 40-year veteran of the heavy steel fabrication industry in Canada, described the proper procedure required for approval of weld access holes: “Weld access holes in fracture-critical members must be designed by the Engineer of Record [Griesing]. Competent detail draftspersons would be expected, during preparation of the shop drawings, to identify closed chambers where the Engineer of Record may have forgotten to show on his plans weld access holes without which the required welding cannot be performed. They would then issue an RFI [request for information] pointing this out, and asking the Engineer of Record how they should proceed.”
According to Bache, then, Griesing would ultimately be responsible for the completeness of the design of every weld access hole that was required, since every steel member in the rings was designated “fracture-critical.”
But in January 2018, after publication of our original story, Griesing wrote the City of Victoria and stated, “There was no ‘design flaw’ by Hardesty & Hanover nor any other of the City consultants involved; it was assembly by the fabricator that did not conform to the design plan requirements nor to the applicable detailing and fabrication standards required in the specifications.”
Andrews’ email to Huggett calls that claim into question.
And now we come to the nub of why Victoria got a new bridge delivered with such highly visible repairs.
Andrews’ email to Huggett continued: “I’m requesting your support by having a separate conversation with H&H/MMM on this subject and resolution thereof. Having to remove the cover plate to do these repairs should be the item challenged as this is what will create the delay expressed above. Or in other words, give me a repair that requires no removal of the cover plate.”
There were three general approaches that could have been taken to address the potential for fatigue caused by the weld access holes.
PCL’s fabricator proposed a welded repair limited to the weld access holes themselves, but Hardesty & Hanover rejected that approach.
A second approach was to add steel to the outside of the rings, and that’s the approach that was eventually taken.
The third approach would have been to remove steel plate (“the cover plate”) from the rings in the area around the access holes and rework the problematic area. That would have preserved the intended design. But Andrews lobbied Huggett to steer away from this latter course. Removing the cover plate at that point in the project could have created a problem that he outlined to Huggett in a second email a few days later: “[T]he whole reason the [cover] plate was installed was [because] it was continually discussed between all parties that all welding needed to be complete before proceeding [in March 2017] to vertical assembly due to concerns of the heat induced from welding causing the shape of the rings to change.”
The implication was that if the choice was made to remove plating and rebuild the problematic area of the ring, the fit between the rings and the other major bridge components—obtained during the month-long trial vertical assembly that had just been completed—couldn’t be counted on. Andrews estimated that taking the route of removal of plate and doing an internal fix would add a “week or more” to the schedule.
Compare that “week or more” to the year that had passed between the time the issue first became known and the point when trial vertical assembly had been completed. In that context, Griesing’s explanation to City council that “impact to schedule” was an important factor in the choice of bolted-on plates is…laughable.
Remarkably, the record of Huggett’s communications released by the City doesn’t include any communications coming from Huggett. He appears not to have responded to Andrews’ emails and not to have consulted with Hardesty & Hanover or with MMM as per Andrews’ request. Neither did he inform anyone at the City of Victoria about the issue or the options. It’s clear that an alternative to bolted-on plates was possible and would, by Andrews’ estimate, have added only a “week or more” to the schedule. But, according to the records released by the City, Huggett didn’t advocate for any outcome with anyone.
Let’s reflect on the absence of any emails from Huggett in response to Andrews’ appeals. Huggett is not a City of Victoria employee. He operates what appears to be a one-man project management business in the Vancouver area. His contract with the City does not require him to use the City’s email server, which automatically backs up all City employee emails and preserves them for the purpose, among others, of being available for access-to-information requests.
When Focus requested Huggett’s communications on this issue, the City had to ask him to go through his emails and find relevant records. In other words, the City created a situation where a private contractor could, in effect, decide what emails to provide. The problem here should be obvious. The City has no way of knowing what interactions took place between Huggett and employees of Hardesty and Hanover, PCL or MMM. The product these companies delivered was seriously defective, yet Huggett, when questioned about the bolted-on plates, provided little more than an airbrushed account of why that had occurred.
From what I understand, the City has now entered into a similar arrangement with Huggett regarding the City’s plan to build a new $75 million swimming pool. What is that definition of “insanity” again?
Does the City have any legal recourse to seek compensation as a result of the delivery of a defective bridge? As I noted in my story in our May/June edition, in April 2016 the City agreed to “release and forever discharge” PCL, MMM and H&H “from all debts, claims, demands, damages, expenses and costs (including without limitation, legal costs) of any nature or kind that are in any way related to the Project and either known or which ought to be known by the [City] as of [April 23, 2016].” According to PCL’s Ryan Andrews, the defects that necessitated the bolted-on plates were a “known issue” at the time the City signed away its right to seek legal recourse for anything related to known issues.
David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.
The City of Victoria's full release of documents related to the bolted-on plates can be downloaded here. (9.1 MB file size)