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Weld Wars

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

In the beginning, the mysterious seismic-retrofit project in San Bernardino bore the unmistakable aroma of congressional pork. Through an intense, clandestine lobbying campaign, Lincoln Electric, America’s largest maker of welding materials, got Congress to set aside $5 million to solve the company’s biggest corporate dilemma: brittle Lincoln welds — in thousands of buildings — that could cause high-rises to collapse in earthquakes. The federal money seemed to be virtually under Lincoln’s control, a boon to help the company research an escape from liability for its product.

But something strange happened on the way to the federal feedbag. Word of the impending study leaked out to top engineering professionals across the country, and as a result, Lincoln has now been edged out of the driver’s seat, while a scientific donnybrook has erupted over who should control the research project and what it ought to accomplish.

At stake here is more than just a company’s profits or the fate of its welds. This particular Lincoln glue is a fundamental part of nearly every modern skyscraper built over the last 30 years, as basic to the construction job as the steel itself. All the updated building codes, all the high-tech earthquake-proofing, may be for naught when the Big One — or even the Medium One — hits these brittle welds. The cost of fixing these buildings is staggering. The cost of not doing so is unthinkable. But five years after the problem was discovered, not thinking about it is mostly what’s been done. And so the federal research money that Lincoln maneuvered for, to salvage its own product, was just too important to leave in the hands of a multibillion-dollar corporation with a vested interest.

The San Bernardino project is not only an opportunity to learn something before an earthquake hits, but a chance to save lives and prevent billions of dollars in property damage, says Thomas Sabol, an L.A.-area engineer widely viewed as an expert on steel-frame retrofitting. Sabol is among an assertive but loosely organized collection of scientists, bureaucrats and college professors who want to extract public value from these unanticipated research dollars.

Joining the fray is a government-funded advisory council called SAC; it was previously created by Congress to propose solutions to the problem of brittle welds, but members of SAC’s executive committee complained that they had no knowledge of the San Bernardino project until learning about it from the Weekly. Now SAC is trying to make up for lost time by forwarding its own bid to direct the project.

The research will take place under the auspices of Cal State San Bernardino, so its administrators figure they are in charge. And they’ve made one thing clear: They won’t take direction from Lincoln. For the moment, the welding company has retired to the sidelines, but that hasn’t silenced critics such as George Soneff, a Santa Monica attorney currently suing Lincoln over its welds. "If Lincoln had been working honestly, if its motive had been pure, it would have alerted the engineering community" about the San Bernardino project, he says.

The Northridge quake in 1994, followed by the Kobe, Japan, quake one year later, exposed an unsuspected structural calamity-in-waiting. In seismic zones around the world — including downtown L.A. — brand-new skyscrapers are in danger of collapsing (in Kobe several did) because their steel frames are cemented together with a cheap-and-easy weld material that cracks under moderate earthquake vibrations.

This disturbing reality especially worried Cleveland-based Lincoln Electric, which supplied the questionable weld metal, called NS-3M, to Southland builders. Representatives from Lincoln continued to sell NS-3M in seismically vulnerable areas long after industry tests indicated that the product was prone to fracture in earthquakes. In fact, a year after welds cracked by the Northridge temblor were discovered, Duane Miller, Lincoln’s top weld expert, sold the same product to builders of the San Bernardino County Medical Center, located about a mile away from the San Andreas and San Jacinto faults. San Bernardino County authorities insist that these welds, some of which actually cracked during the hospital’s construction without any seismic pressure, have now been either replaced or reinforced at a cost of $6 million in public funds, but the documentation is inconclusive.

Other former Lincoln clients are not so sanguine. Since the Northridge quake, Lincoln has been sued by 16 separate building owners over its welds. In some cases, buildings had to be completely evacuated when severe fractures in major support columns were discovered. Nearly all of these suits have been settled out of court for undisclosed sums. And Lincoln insists that other factors, such as poor workmanship, are really to blame for the cracked connections.

But Lincoln remains legally vulnerable, and in 1997, the company launched a million-dollar lobbying campaign through the "Seismic Safety Coalition." According to federal lobbyist reports, Lincoln is the only dues-paying member of this coalition, which hired California’s own Leon Panetta, former Clinton chief of staff and congressman, to knock on congressional doors.

 

If a million dollars seems like a lot to spend on lobbying for a federal "solution" to the weld problem, consider the magnitude of Lincoln’s dilemma. A five-story structure may contain some 300 welded connections, which are often very difficult to reach, and repairing each connection can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. Thousands of buildings worldwide are held together with the brittle NS-3M weld. Moreover, Lincoln’s financial exposure could rise substantially if courts conclude that Lincoln knowingly sold unsafe welding material.

Soneff, the attorney currently suing Lincoln on behalf of a Westside building- owners group, asserts just that. He interprets Lincoln’s Beltway antics as an attempt to avoid self-inflicted liability. "Why else would Lincoln hire lobbyists to create a dummy coalition and extract taxpayers’ money if Lincoln was not a central cause of the enormous problem with tall buildings in California?" says Soneff, reiterating a claim he’s made in court filings. "Lincoln has been caught with its hand in the Washington cookie jar."

Neither Lincoln officials nor Panetta responded to numerous requests for comment. But after a March article in the Weekly on the weld problems, Lincoln responded via e-mail to the engineering community at large. "The San Bernardino project was specified by Congress, funded by FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency], and is controlled by FEMA," wrote Lincoln spokesman Roy Morrow. "To the extent that Lincoln’s financial contributions may have, however indirectly, assisted in these results, Lincoln is pleased and proud."

The $5 million in federal funds was secured by San Bernardino–area Congressman Jerry Lewis, a business-friendly Republican who received campaign donations from both Lincoln’s lobbyist and the wives of two Lincoln executives. The money will pay for a retrofit test on a building that was constructed with Lincoln’s NS-3M welds on the Cal State San Bernardino campus. The university had not applied for these funds, so it was forced to play catch-up with the paperwork, filling out required federal applications for money that was ready and waiting. Lincoln was certainly eager to help get things rolling. Shortly after the congressional appropriation, Lincoln’s Duane Miller, along with a Lincoln lobbyist and an aide from Congressman Lewis’ office, met with Cal State officials to explain exactly how the project would proceed.

But like NS-3M in an earthquake, this carefully plotted plan began to crack under stress. For instance, one of the anticipated collaborators on the project, an L.A.-based engineering firm apparently favored by Lincoln, no longer has an inside track on designing the project. This firm, Myers, Nelson & Houghton, was required to compete with more than a dozen other engineering firms for the gig. That was potentially unwelcome news for Lincoln, because Myers, Nelson & Houghton sells a welding brace that could be used for a low-cost retrofit design. In fact, Cal State officials now report that this firm elected not to submit a bid by last week’s deadline.

College officials have determined to open the door to a range of alternatives not tied to the financial interests of one or two companies.

Those submitting proposals include the government-funded SAC council. (SAC’s acronym is pieced together using a single initial from the titles of professional associations serving engineers, scientists and academics respectively.) SAC has studied the problem of cracked steel-frame connections since early 1994, and, in the words of Bill Holmes, its chairman, "This unusual opportunity is a perfect fit for SAC’s organization, capabilities and purpose." Which begs the question why it wasn’t informed about the project from the beginning. SAC chairman Holmes admitted he has no answer for that.

But one clue might be SAC’s history with Lincoln. It was SAC that, in 1995, issued preliminary guidelines recommending a ban on Lincoln’s product. By and large, elected officials have not acted on this advice, and SAC itself has come under heated criticism for not doing more about the dangerous welds. Some engineers have suggested that SAC is not worthy to manage the research, or that it would be unethical for the government-supported council to grab the new federal funds.

To date, Lincoln’s brittle NS-3M remains legal in most jurisdictions. In fact, Lincoln has a major stake in protecting a worldwide market for these welds. In earthquake-prone Latin America, the weld is popular because "there’s nothing to dispose of, it’s cheap, and you don’t really have to train specific welders to utilize the product," says Armando Escober, who will oversee the research on behalf of Cal State San Bernardino.

Escober, who describes Lincoln’s early involvement with the project as "damage control," added that the university will avoid involvement with Lincoln from this point forward. "We never asked for this grant, but what we’re doing now is making sure that this project runs smoothly. And we want to come up with a good, good [retrofit] system."


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