By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Called E70T-4, or NS-3M, or "squirt welding," this product replaced the tricky process of arc welding with easy-to-use coil guns that applied steel welds at up to 38 pounds per hour — about double the rate of prior methods. Labor costs were drastically lowered as skilled welders were undercut by inexperienced workers who could handle Lincoln’s new product.
John Hall, an engineering professor at Caltech, was one of the first people hired by FEMA to determine why the pre-Northridge connections were cracking. In a lecture later published under the title "Tall Buildings, Bad Welds, Large Earthquakes — Big Problems," Hall explains that engineers had been designing buildings in L.A. on the assumption that, in the event of an earthquake, the building joints would reach an elastic limit, then yield "like chewing gum." What happened with E70T-4, Hall points out, is that "many welds failed well within their elastic range." The joints didn’t bend; they broke.
Soon after Hall’s study, FEMA committed $11 million to a joint venture called SAC, with the sole purpose of establishing the cause of — and cure for — the defective pre-Northridge welded connections. Robin Shepherd, an engineer with 30 years of earthquake-damage analysis under his belt, is one of six members on SAC’s Management Committee. In a 1996 SAC analysis, Shepherd wrote that the damage sustained by buildings constructed under the pre-Northridge guidelines "suggests that collapse of similar structures may very well occur in future larger, but realistically probable, seismic events."
In December 1994, the L.A. Department of Building and Safety issued repair guidelines that effectively banned E70T-4 by requiring a weld metal with a higher "notch-toughness." Two years later, the county followed suit. But while the city has required owners of damaged buildings to make repairs, the undamaged connections — the uncracked E70T-4 welds in L.A. — will remain untouched. "The city does not have a retrofit ordinance," says Richard Holguin, L.A.’s building chief. "There is no plan to modify the existing connections."
Replacing the undamaged but potentially catastrophic pre-Northridge connections is a responsibility that no one is willing to accept. With roughly 1,500 steel-frame buildings in question, a five-story structure may have 300 welds, and fixing each connection can cost between $10,000 and $50,000. That’s a lot of metal.
Enter Lincoln Electric, Leon Panetta and the Seismic Safety Coalition. If Panetta and the coalition can convince Congress and FEMA to undertake steel retrofitting as a matter of public policy, then Lincoln will have escaped the question of who should answer for the looming liability encased in L.A.’s steel-framed structures.
Panetta registered with the House of Representatives on March 20, 1998, as a lobbyist for the coalition; his filing states that he was hired by Powell Tate, a public-relations subsidiary to the D.C. lobbying powerhouse Cassidy & Associates. While Panetta and Cassidy refused to discuss the Seismic Safety Coalition, both selections speak volumes about what Lincoln is hoping to achieve.
Panetta, a political insider who once headed the Office of Management and Budget, combines consummate understanding of the budgetary process with excellent contacts throughout official Washington. As regards Lincoln, Panetta’s single most important contact is his unique friendship with FEMA director and longtime Clinton tagalong James Lee Witt. Or as Panetta himself put it in an interview last year with the Washington-based Legal Times, "The fact that he knows who I am and what I’ve done is part of the reason they brought me on."
Witt, in turn, has established himself as a key player in the Clinton White House. He came with Clinton from Arkansas, and he has transformed FEMA into what many people consider the president’s greatest political asset. Indeed, FEMA’s relief effort following the Northridge quake represents $13 billion — more than half the emergency funds distributed since Clinton took office. But the tour de force of FEMA’s response to Los Angeles came in the form of $126 million to repair and retrofit City Hall. Witt and Panetta joined with Mayor Richard Riordan to share in a conference call announcing the good news. Like Panetta, Witt repeatedly failed to return calls requesting comment for this story.
Lincoln’s point man in the effort to secure government cooperation is their top welding engineer, Duane K. Miller. Miller has been attempting to polish the image of E70T-4 since the first cracks were discovered after Northridge, lobbying local and state officials, as seen in an internal memo written several months before the city’s ban on E70T-4 and published by the L.A. Times. "The fact that self-shielded flux-cored electrodes [E70T-4] have not been banned is evidence that we are on the right path," Miller wrote. "Had we not been present, I am confident that this is one of the actions that would have been taken."
Miller also sits on FEMA’s SAC Project Oversight Committee. Ron Hamburger, chairman of SAC’s Guideline Committee, says Miller’s "primary role is to provide expert independent advice to our client, FEMA, as to whether the project is being conducted in an appropriate manner." In other words, one of Lincoln’s top men has the authority to determine whether or not Lincoln’s product is being investigated by the federal government in an appropriate manner.
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