Feds Launch Big Dig Probe as More Defects Found

Wed April 06, 2005 - Northeast Edition

BOSTON (AP) Federal prosecutors confirmed they are investigating the Big Dig, and project officials said their inspection of the leaky Interstate 93 tunnel walls has uncovered 11 more minor defects.

On March 17, Samantha Martin, a spokeswoman of U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan, confirmed that federal investigators are looking into the project but she declined to comment on specifics of the probe.

However, U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch said Big Dig contractor Modern Continental was the focus of the federal investigation, but declined to elaborate on the nature of the allegations being pursued.

“They’re looking specifically at that contract,”’ he told WRKO-AM. Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston, sits on the House Government Reform Committee, which will meet in Boston in April to review the Big Dig’s leak problems.

Modern Continental also is the focus of a civil investigation by state Attorney General Thomas Reilly, along with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the joint venture managing the $14.6-billion highway project. Modern Continental did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

Jordan Levy, vice chairman of the five-member Turnpike Board, said he welcomed the investigation by Sullivan.

“I hope he looks at everything,” Levy said. “If there’s anyone anywhere who has withheld any information from a regulatory or investigative agency, then I hope the U.S. attorney does a full and thorough investigation and nails them.”

A spokesman of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff said it will work with investigators. “We would cooperate with any relevant state or federal authority,” spokesman Andy Paven said.

Also on March 17, Big Dig officials said they have identified 11 more faulty sections in the walls of the I-93 tunnel, bringing the total to 55 panels with defects out of 1,080 inspected.

“The tunnel is safe. It’s absolutely safe,” Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff Project Manager Keith Sibley told reporters.

The tunnels are the centerpiece of the massive project, which has been plagued for years by cost overruns and management problems. Formally known as the Central Artery/Third Harbor Tunnel Project, the Big Dig buried I-93 under downtown Boston and connected the Massachusetts Turnpike to Logan International Airport.

In September, water broke though a faulty wall panel and flooded the I-93 northbound tunnel. A subsequent investigation revealed hundreds of smaller leaks.

Jack Lemley, an independent engineering consultant who conducted that investigation, said in letter to the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority that he could no longer vouch for the safety of the tunnels.

Gov. Mitt Romney responded by asking the state’s high court to rule on whether he can fire Matthew Amorello, chairman of the Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Big Dig. But Amorello insisted the tunnels are safe and said he has no plans to step down.

Lemley and another independent engineer, George Tamaro, told legislators in November that they believed the tunnels were structurally sound and safe to drive through.

Since then, however, Big Dig officials have identified the 55 sections of tunnel wall with construction defects, and fireproofing material has fallen onto the roadway after being dislodged by the leaks.

The Turnpike Authority broke off its relationship with Tamaro’s firm, New York-based Mueser Rutledge Consulting Engineers, after the company confirmed it had discussed teaming up with Parsons Brinckerhoff to work on rebuilding the World Trade Center.

Because of Parsons Brinckerhof’s involvement with the Big Dig, such a partnership would apparently constitute a conflict of interest.

“The company played a key role in analyzing the slurry wall breach in the I-93 North tunnel last September and assuring us that the tunnels were safe,” Amorello said in a statement.

He said the Turnpike is looking to quickly replace Mueser Rutledge.