By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Anne Fishbein
When the Northridge quake awakened Los Angeles on January 17, 1994, it was considered at 6.7 magnitude a relatively moderate shudder. However, because of its location, it was the first true seismic test for many of L.A.’s 1,500 steel-frame buildings. At first glance, most edifices seemed to fare well, but a disturbing trend soon surfaced: Many of the interior beam-to-column connections had cracked, in some cases splitting all the way through.
The problem first came to light in structures still under construction, like the Getty Center, which was then just completing steel framing. Engineers there found a series of cracked connections and decided to replace all of its original welds. Owners of completed steel-frame buildings thus learned of the threat, but determining the status of their own welds would require breaking through plaster or concrete just to get a look. Still, the damage had been done — the long-standing myth of the seismic invincibility of steel has been questioned ever since.
Shortly after Northridge, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) joined several independent firms in conducting tests on the flawed connections. The examinations eventually determined, among other things, that the weld metal was too brittle to withstand severe seismic activity. By the end of 1994, the city of L.A. issued construction guidelines that effectively banned the use of this product, called E70T-4, by requiring tougher weld metal.
Now, five years after the realization of this fundamental engineering flaw, even as geologists discover new, potentially catastrophic fault lines under the city, a rather ominous question remains: What about the welds? Nearly all of L.A.’s steel-frame buildings constructed prior to Northridge were built with the weak connections. Shouldn’t they be repaired?
Some say that the Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric Co., which produced and supplied E70T-4 to L.A. builders over the past 30 years, should be held responsible for the questionable welds. Executives at Lincoln have another idea. Over the past two years, Lincoln has spent more than $1 million on a quiet, sophisticated lobbying campaign designed to press the federal government to step in and pay the enormous cost involved in retrofitting thousands of welded steel connections in hundreds of buildings across L.A. — and thousands more throughout the quake-prone West.
The company has campaigned in part on its own, but also in connection with Cassidy & Associates, a high-priced Washington lobbying firm. Through the attorneys at Cassidy, in turn, Lincoln launched something called the "Seismic Safety Coalition," which purports to be "a broad-based, nonpartisan organization" and a "national coalition," but in fact claims a single dues-paying member — Lincoln Electric. The "chair" of this "coalition" is Leon Panetta, former congressman from California, former chief of staff at the Clinton White House and longtime associate of FEMA director James Lee Witt. In his capacity as SSC chair, Panetta has registered for the first time as a congressional lobbyist.
As described in its mission statement, the Seismic Safety Coalition sounds innocuous enough. It seeks to "improve public health and safety by encouraging more vigorous pre-disaster hazard-mitigation efforts with respect to earthquakes." But then comes the punch line: "Specifically, we want to see new developments in earthquake-resistant design and construction practices incorporated in a responsible and effective retrofitting program" — with the federal government picking up the tab. Government commitment to such a policy could save Lincoln millions of dollars in liability for its welds in Southern California alone.
Just how Lincoln’s coalition has gone about pressing its agenda remains unclear — officials at both Lincoln and Cassidy refused to discuss the group, and a half-dozen calls to Panetta were not returned. But one apparent path of action can be discerned in a new federally funded retrofit project in San Bernardino County.
In December of last year, engineering specialists at Cal State San Bernardino were informed by the office of Jerry Lewis, the San Bernardino congressman, that they were the lucky recipients of a $5 million federal grant, to be used for "a pilot project of seismic- retrofit technology." And while the university had not asked for the grant, they were told during an informal meeting with FEMA and a Lewis aide that the money would be used to demonstrate the financial and technological feasibility of retrofitting a steel-frame building constructed with Lincoln’s E70T-4.
Lewis, probably the most powerful member of Congress you’ve never heard of, sat last year as a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, which decides how to split up the federal pork pie. Lewis also just happens to be from a seismically vulnerable district and was heavily lobbied for FEMA appropriations by the Seismic Safety Coalition. And, to complete the circle in San Bernardino, two members from the coalition — one representative each from Lincoln and Cassidy — joined the FEMA crew that met with Cal State officials to lay out the details of the unprecedented $5 million grant.
Lincoln Electric, founded in 1895, has sold more welding material than any other firm in the United States. It has manufacturing operations in 15 countries, reported a 40 percent increase in sales in Latin America for 1997, and in 1998 saw its net sales approach $1.2 billion. Lincoln is doing fine, and part of the reason is a revolutionary welding process they developed during Southern California’s growth boom, when the steelers had to come up with a faster weld if they were going to compete with the efficiency of concrete.