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Welds Apart 

Who’ll pay for L.A.’s shaky skyscrapers?

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999
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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.

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."

Collapse!

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.

L.A. building chief Holguin, who is also on the SAC Project Oversight Committee, claims Miller is a natural choice for the committee because he is knowledgeable about Lincoln’s product. However, Holguin concedes, "Let’s put it this way — all the committee members bring their own biases to the table."

Several of Miller’s industry associates on the SAC project have heard of Lincoln’s Seismic Safety Coalition and are aware of Miller’s involvement, but very few have a clear idea of what the organization is up to. In fact, Alan Goldstein, president of the Structural Engineers Association of California, one of the three organizations that compose the SAC venture, has never even heard of the Seismic Safety Coalition.

Hamburger is likewise in the dark. "I’m not aware of any members of the organization," he says. "But its purpose was to attempt to get some funding from various government sources to show that it would be possible to upgrade existing buildings."

One apparent political success for the Seismic Safety Coalition came at the end of last year when Congressman Lewis’ Appropriations Committee earmarked $40 million for three separate FEMA projects in his home district. Five million of those dollars will be used to demonstrate the financial and technical feasibility of retrofitting a pre-Northridge- designed steel-frame building, chock full o’ E70T-4, on the Cal State campus.

These grants, which were transferred to the state about three weeks ago, are unusual in that none of the recipients ever filed a formal application. "This is a fairly rare earmark," says David Sandretti, communications director for Barbara Boxer, who last year sat on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees FEMA. "Generally speaking, hazard-mitigation earmarks are not as specific as outlined in these appropriations," he says.

Besides Lewis’ obvious devotion to the safety of his constituents, another factor in this generous, and unexpected, appropriation may have been the lobbying technique of Cassidy & Associates on behalf of Lincoln Electric and the Seismic Safety Coalition. On March 20, 1998, the same day the Seismic Safety Coalition registered with the House of Representatives, the wives of Anthony Massaro and John Stropki, Lincoln Electric’s CEO and executive vice president respectively, made $500 donations to the Jerry Lewis campaign fund. It’s not every day that a California congressman impresses the well-to-do housewives of Cleveland. Cassidy showed its support to the tune of $6,539, winding up as the 11th largest contributor to Lewis’ campaign fund in 1998.

And while Sandretti claims that "Senator Boxer did not work for this specific earmark," her campaign fund suggests that Boxer may well have been in the loop. In one day — May 8, 1998 — Boxer received donations from Frederick Stueber, a senior vice president at Lincoln; several key players at Cassidy; and Leon Panetta. Once again, Cleveland took an interest in California politics, while Cassidy filled the role of one of the largest contributors to Boxer’s 1998 campaign fund.

Cassidy’s bread and butter is the art of earmarking appropriations. Through the years the firm has developed a niche representing universities, hospitals and other private entities seeking to tap into the millions of dollars that flow each year from the congressional spigot.

All the various threads of Lincoln’s lobbying effort came together on December 10, 1998, at a meeting on the Cal State San Bernardino campus. The meeting was coordinated by Jeff Shockey, the Lewis aide credited with arranging the $40 million in FEMA grants; in attendance were FEMA district coordinator Christina Lopez, FEMA technical consultant Bob Hanson and three Cal State engineering specialists. The idea was "to tell [the Cal State administrators] that they would have to start putting together details for the project," explains Lopez.

Also on hand were Duane Miller, Lincoln’s weld expert and wearer of many hats, and Jeffrey Lawrence, a representative from Cassidy & Associates. Shockey refused to return numerous calls for this story, as did Miller, so neither could comment on why the two Seismic Safety Coalition members were invited. However, Lopez says, "I was given the impression that Lincoln Electric was going to be working with Cal State San Bernardino on this project."

Surprisingly for a project promising to display the latest technology in welded-steel connections, no one working on the SAC venture, which has been studying the question in great detail over the past four years, has anything to do with it. No one, that is, except Miller. "I was surprised to see him," says Hanson, who knows Miller from overseeing the SAC venture. "I was also surprised to see the person from Cassidy & Associates."

Why all the interest from Lincoln in these appropriation funds? George Soneff, a Santa Monica attorney currently suing Lincoln on behalf of a Westside building-owners group, is convinced that the retrofit project at Cal State San Bernardino is an obvious attempt by Lincoln to shift responsibility for their faulty welds to the hands of the federal government.

"Our lawsuit is the only way that Lincoln can be made to pay for its share of the problem," Soneff said in an interview.

Soneff’s suit alleges that during the 30 years Lincoln Electric marketed E70T-4, it claimed certain durability characteristics even though the company "had no reasonable grounds for believing that they were true." He contends that "This type of welded construction didn’t happen by accident, but rather it happened as a product of years of deceptive advertising and deceptive sales techniques by Lincoln."

Soneff has an uphill climb ahead of him as he tries to hold Lincoln accountable for E70T-4. Their counsel is Jones Day Reavis & Pogue, the firm that represented R.J. Reynolds in the Great American Tobacco Wars. And that’s not all. Remember Robin Shepherd, the SAC earthquake-damage expert, who has a final editing pen in recommendations that go to FEMA and to legislators, who pontificated the quote about L.A.’s probable "collapse"? Well, Lincoln has hired Shepherd as an expert witness to the tune of $200 an hour.

When Soneff deposed him in early February, Shepherd said he had no opinion about whether there were premature failures in steel-frame welds as a result of the Northridge quake. Soneff then asked him about his alarming quote from two years ago, to which Shepherd replied, "I might point out it says, ‘suggests that collapse . . . ’ It doesn’t say it will happen."

So what about the welds? If the tactics surrounding this current quivering mishap surprise anyone, they shouldn’t. Los Angeles, described by our City Council as "the most seismically active zone in the country," could also stand a chance as the most seismically inept. With the scores of aging concrete and masonry brick buildings in the Southland that have never been retrofitted, or even inspected, it’s a wonder that steel structures are getting any attention at all.

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