Excavating the paper trail at the Big Dig
As you know, a couple of massive, concrete ceiling panels collapsed some days ago in a "Big Dig" project tunnel, killing a motorist. The Globe story reports that in 1999 (!), "the on-site safety officer for the Interstate 90 connector directly warned his superiors ... that the tunnel ceiling could collapse because the bolts could not support the heavy concrete panels, and feared for his conscience if someone died as a result."
The officer wrote that he "could not comprehend how this structure can withhold the test of time." That's understandable, seeing as how the plan called for the three-ton panels to be held in place by bolts secured only by glue!
"He said he really began to worry about the ceiling after a third-grade class from his hometown of Norwell came to visit the Big Dig for a tour in spring 1999," the Globe reported.
"He showed the class some concrete ceiling panels and pointed to the bolts protruding from the ceiling, explaining that the panels would one day hang from those bolts. A third-grade girl raised her hand and asked him, 'Will those things hold up the concrete?'
"He started voicing concerns among his colleagues and then to managers after that. 'It was like the [third-graders] had pointed out the emperor has no clothes,' he said. 'I said, `Yes, it would hold,' but then I thought about it.' "
Good heavens. But that's not all: "The Interstate 90 connector tunnel was originally intended to have a much lighter ceiling than the one that caved in and killed a woman on July 10, according to the state engineer overseeing tunnel safety inspections," another Globe story reports.
"But, partway through the tunnel construction, managers of the Big Dig project switched to a design that called for a heavier concrete ceiling that would be less expensive and easier to install, said Alexander Bardow , state director of bridges and structures.
"By the time Big Dig managers made the change, the eastern end of the tunnel, where the accident would later occur, had already been constructed without steel support beams embedded in the roof to hang concrete panels from. Instead, workers suspended the ceiling from bolts drilled into the roof and held there with epoxy, a superpowerful glue."
In my opinion, there may be a geographic component to this scandal. Critics have long claimed that a culture of corruption permeates Massachusetts state government; books have been written about it and about similar cultures in Rhode Island and other New England states. I suspect that culture helped create the atmosphere in which shoddy workmanship and fatally flawed engineering were papered over and ignored.
And is it my imagination, or are such scandals much less common in the upper Midwest, even after allowing for our smaller population? Lloyd Omdahl wrote in his guidebook, "Governing North Dakota," that "abuses in lobbying do occur although most observers agree agree that they are relatively rare in North Dakota. Bribes are unheard of around the North Dakota Legislature." True? True, as far as I can tell; by national standards, North Dakota politics seem scrupulously clean. My guess is that's why we have comparatively few failed public-works projects.
Although the Garrison Diversion's New Rockford Canal doesn't help me make this case ...