Governor confident pontoons are fine

Gov. Chris Gregoire says that a design error likely made by the state Department of Transportation resulted in increased leaks in recently completed giant pontoons made in Aberdeen that will eventually support a new Highway 520 Bridge across Lake Washington.

During an interview with The Daily World, Gregoire said that not all of the leaks have been repaired, but they will be soon. And she says she’s still confident that future pontoons coming out of the construction site at the mouth of the Chehalis River will use better designs and improved construction methods. She says Kiewit-General, which holds the contract at the construction site, still has her absolute trust.

“The public needs to know it’s going to be safe and secure,” Gregoire said. “That’s our No. 1 priority. No. 2 is making sure our taxpayer dollars are being well spent and being absolutely transparent about it.”

Gregoire says she doesn’t consider the leaks a serious threat to a future 520 Bridge, criticizing a recent KOMO 4 News report that states that all six pontoons that came from the Aberdeen site are leaking. KOMO’s report states that as many as 36 cells — inside the pontoons to keep them afloat — are leaking water either from Lake Washington or from water intentionally placed inside to keep the pontoons floating evenly. That compares to Interstate 90, which a recent report shows had only seven out of 2,008 pontoon cells with measurable water inside.

KOMO’s report was based on public records requests with the state Department of Transportation. Several videos and pages from reports were posted on the broadcast station’s website.

A DOT report authored by a consultant states, “We have concerns about the watertight integrity of the repairs. We believe that even after post-tensioning, many of the construction joints introduced by the repairs will leak. … It is likely some of the leaks will ‘self heal’, however, this may take several weeks or even months. If the leaks do not self heal, due to water pressure, in our experience it will be exceedingly difficult to stop the leaking.”

Gregoire says the details are out of context. She noted that several leaks were discovered before the pontoons left the Harbor to take their long journey around the Olympic Peninsula and down Puget Sound to Lake Washington. The governor noted that the plan was to repair the leaks out of the sea water so that the repairs would hold better. And some water had to be placed in pontoons as a kind of ballast to reduce buoyancy.

“This coverage you see on television is the pontoons before they are repaired,” Gregoire said. “Some of the moisture you see on the sides you will see because they are so thick and they haven’t cured, so there’s a whole lot of misunderstandings going on in this, which is very unfortunate.”

When cracks were first discovered, a special peer review panel of experts and professors helped come up with some ideas to help solve the problem in the future. Gregoire says she’s going back to this same peer review panel and has asked them for more assistance and to take another look at the issue.

“There’s no question there was an error in the design,” Gregoire said. “As far as I can tell, it could be an error from an engineer at DOT because when Kiewit came in to the contract they had the option to do their own design or accepting the design that had been prepared for estimating the cost by the agency. They chose the design by the department. I don’t expect there to be any more impact with respect to the pontoons being made here and the ones that are already delivered are absolutely repairable.”

Gregoire said the state agency is offering to take community leaders and the media inside the pontoons on Lake Washington with a special review panel member to explain what’s going on.

KOMO’s report also states that Kiewit benefits financially by delaying the pontoons from Aberdeen.

Kiewit holds the contract in Aberdeen and is part of another joint-venture for the contract to build the bridge

KOMO’s report states that when Kiewit is late with pontoons, they owe the state $10,000 each day. But, in turn, when the pontoons are late arriving on Lake Washington, the second contract states that Kiewit gets paid $100,000 each day. That means the company turns a $90,000 profit for being late.

“That’s not going to happen,” Gregoire said.

Gregorie said that the state’s expert review panel will also look at the contract situation to determine responsibility on costs.

“That’s why we brought in the expert to say, ‘OK, here’s what we think is a fair allocation of the problem,” Gregoire said. “There will be no accepted change of orders without multiple eyes having seen it and approved it.”

Gregoire said a reorganization of the office should also help the situation.

The pontoon construction project, at its height a few months ago, had about 400 jobs.

Roughly half of them are considered local by the state Department of Transportation standards. Many of those jobs will stick around as 27 more pontoons are built at the location through the end of 2014.

Gregoire said she’s still confident of the timeline.