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Pushing Steel

Photo by M.R. Chassé Company Inc.The San Bernardino County Medical Center opened its doors last month, ballyhooed as a trauma center designed to be fully operational through a magnitude-8.3 earthquake. But the $640 million steel-frame facility, located just a few miles from the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults, has already had a troubling experience with the seismically suspect welding compound E70T-4 — the same glue used in more than 1,500 steel-frame buildings in greater Los Angeles.

E70T-4, distributed in California by building-supplies giant Lincoln Electric, proved more brittle — and less durable — than anticipated when welds in scores of L.A.-area steel-frame buildings cracked during the 1994 Northridge quake. Subsequent testing raised concern among experts that similarly constructed buildings could collapse in a larger quake.

Yet, according to documents unearthed in continuing litigation against Lincoln, when work on the San Bernardino hospital got under way a year after Northridge, Lincoln welding engineer Duane K. Miller traveled to the Inland Empire to persuade construction officials to employ E70T-4. Soon after, construction halted when it was discovered that many of the welds in the structure had already cracked.

Miller’s trip was part of a continuing post-quake campaign by Lincoln to salvage the reputation of its welding compound. Just five weeks earlier, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued guidelines that effectively banned E70T-4 from use in repairing this city’s steel-frame buildings. But, due in part to Lincoln’s efforts, E70T-4 is still readily available on the market throughout the quake-prone West — even for building state-of-the-art public hospitals.

 

Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric was able to corner the market on construction welding in the Southland over the past 30 years by promoting the revolutionary, quick-and-easy process allowed by E70T-4. When the Northridge quake threatened that franchise, records show, Miller became Lincoln’s point man in its bid to keep E70T-4 on the market.

Miller’s company-trip logs, subpoenaed in a current lawsuit against Lincoln, show that he spent the months following Northridge jetting to industry functions throughout the earthquake belt, pressing colleagues in the engineering community to "challenge provisions that would be unnecessary and/or harmful to our position and that of our customers."

Miller had spotty success. Though he was named a principal investigator on a task force assembled by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to study the steel-frame connections, the group issued a preliminary recommendation to prohibit E70T-4 in 1995. There is no amendment banning E70T-4 in the Uniform Building Code, however, nor in California Building Code guidelines. Also, last December, Lincoln successfully lobbied for a $5 million federal retrofit demonstration project in San Bernardino, a program that could pave the way for government-funded upgrades of buildings welded with E70T-4. Miller was on hand when the funds were delivered.

 

Miller’s reports indicate he was well aware that industry tests conducted following Northridge were raising serious doubts about the Lincoln product’s ability to perform properly in an earthquake. Still, on February 1, 1995, under the heading "Earthquake Related Activities, San Bernardino," Miller’s log shows he "flew to Ontario and met with representatives of [steel-fabrication houses] Herrick and PDM to review job requirements for a specific hospital project."

Then, writes Miller, the next day "we visited with representatives of the hospital including the General Contractor, the Engineering and Architectural Firms, as well as representatives of OSHPD [Office of Statewide Health, Planning and Development]. Reviewed were welding specification requirements . . . This group accepted the requirements that self-shielded flux-core [E70T-4] could be used, and would be submitting them for other approvals."

The "specific hospital project" in San Bernardino selecting construction materials at that time was the new County Medical Center.

By July 1995, the project’s lead inspector found that approximately 70 percent of a sample of E70T-4 welds had cracked — even without any seismic stress. Officials at Herrick, the firm that did the actual metalwork, said cracks are to be expected in welded joints, but the same inspection found that similar connections using another material had just one crack in 450 welds.

Efforts were made to repair the cracked welds at the time, but in December, the county district attorney launched an investigation into accusations by an employee at Herrick that the company was covering up cracks in E70T-4 with a cosmetic layer of molten steel, rather than repairing them.

The Herrick employee supplied prosecutors with videotape of workers masking the faulty welds, evidence that prompted a raid of the company’s subsidiary, San Bernardino Steel. But the alleged bogus connections were never located by inspectors at the hospital site, according to Deputy District Attorney Glenn Yabuno, and the investigation was eventually closed. Says Yabuno, "We could not confirm the allegations."

Meanwhile, the inspection firm that originally reported the cracked welds was fired a short time later by the county, with no reason given. After paying a total of $6 million to another inspection firm, the county was assured that the cracked welds had been fixed and were determined to be of little structural significance. When the construction delays prompted headlines, project engineer Jeff Asher, of Los Angeles–based KPFF Engineering, admitted that with hindsight he would not use E70T-4 again. In fact, a different weld metal was chosen for the balance of the building’s assembly. Just how many of the original E70T-4 welds were replaced or repaired was never established.

Bijan Roy, a structural engineer with OSHPD who monitored the hospital’s construction, admits that E70T-4 was used for most of the preliminary welding, and recalls an early meeting with Duane Miller when the products were being chosen. However, Roy points out that use of E70T-4 was permitted in San Bernardino under California Building Code guidelines. "Even though it is not illegal," Roy concedes, "some experience shows that it might crack."

Indeed, every county has jurisdiction over its own construction guidelines. Even as the federal government heeds Lincoln’s high-priced lobbying efforts, dishing out millions on a demonstration of how to retrofit buildings constructed with E70T-4, there is no universal provision to prevent it from being used again.


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