Nevada transportation officials are investigating claims by a construction worker who says a new highway bridge south of Reno is unsafe because he was ordered to use substandard concrete to save money building it.
David Lee said he did the shoddy work earlier this year at the direction of his foremen at C.C. Myers, a California-based subcontractor on one of five major bridges that are part of a $600 million highway project connecting Carson City and Reno.
"I personally won't allow my family to drive on these bridges until it is fixed because I believe it could cause catastrophic failure," Lee told The Associated Press. "If that bridge fell apart and I didn't say anything, I couldn't live with myself."
Lee, 49, said he took his concerns to the Nevada Department of Transportation after he was among several workers laid off in October,
Transportation Department assistant resident engineer Kenneth Oates confirmed the state is investigating Lee's allegations. Oates said if any work was substandard, inspectors likely would have detected it during the final checkoff. But he said Lee marked on the blueprints exactly where he claims to have patched weak links.
A company spokeswoman said an internal investigation found no substandard work. "We checked out the claims that were made and in the investigation found no evidence to substantiate them," Beth Ruyak said from Rancho Cordova, Calif. Ruyak said the Nevada Transportation Department's probe was going to be even broader.
"At this point, we understand they have not found anything either but we are told their investigation is still open," she said.
Lee, a third-generation construction worker who moved from Sacramento four years ago, said he was told to use a stucco, sand-cement mix to patch the concrete imperfections in the bridge supports instead of the more-expensive, extra-strength material required under building specifications for the Galena Forest Bridge.
He said a foreman told him to do the work when onsite Nevada Department of Transportation inspectors went to lunch at the 919-foot-long bridge, the second longest in the series along the 8.5-mile stretch of highway. "They were more worried about the money instead of public safety," Lee said.
Oates said the contractor would be held accountable if the patches are found to be inadequate. C.C. Myers was notified of the concerns and already has conducted its own inquiry, he said.
The I-580 bridge is part of a huge transportation project that when finished will complete the last continuous stretch of the freeway linking Reno and Carson City. But it has been fraught with cost overruns and delays.
Envisioned as far back as the 1970s, initial construction began in 2003 with a completion target of 2009. It's now expected to be open to traffic in late 2011.
The project's crown jewel is the cathedral-arch-designed Galena Creek Bridge several miles south of the bridge Lee worked on. At 300 feet high, 1,700 foot long with a 700-foot-long supporting arch, it will be the largest structure of its type in the world.
The biggest disruption in construction came before C.C. Myers joined the project in early 2007 after the state canceled a previous contract with the Wisconsin-based Edward Kraemer & Sons, which had stopped work on the main bridge because of concerns it could collapse due to high wind during a vulnerable point in construction.
The Department of Transportation disputed those concerns, but canceled the contract after paying the company about $50 million for work completed rather than continue a lengthy court battle. That decision went all the way to the governor's office.
Dan Burns, spokesman for Gov. Jim Gibbons, said he did not know if the governor had been briefed on the latest bridge concerns but said Gibbons would expect that it would be taken very seriously.
Oates said the state's relationship with C.C. Myers is "very amicable." He said some of the patching is more cosmetic than structural, in which cases the stucco mix Lee described is permitted.
Lee insists that's not the case.
"This wasn't cosmetic. What I was doing was structural," Lee said, recalling some of the holes he patched were up to 16 inches in diameter.
"I was ordered to fill some of those holes with stucco _ sand and cement. The foremen said the supervisors were complaining about the cost of the material," he said. "A bag of that stuff costs $20 or $30 but it's more important than possible failure of the bridge."
An area union official said Lee brought his concerns to him this fall.
Mike Kinney, vice president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, Local 169 in Reno, said he visited the site and met with C.C. Myers officials to discuss Lee's concerns. But he said his industry experience makes him skeptical that such work would escape the scrutiny of inspectors.
"They are watching every aspect of that pour. If they did something out of the ordinary, those guys would be right there," he said. "If we get more complaints, we'll file grievances and we'll get to the bottom of it."
Kinney said the fact Lee was part of a wave of layoffs makes it difficult to determine if he was let go because he complained. He said the threat of layoffs makes it difficult for co-workers to speak out. "Everyone clams up because they are concerned about jobs," he said.
Lee said he knew from the start what he had done was wrong and struggled for months about whether to come forward.
"My conscience is clear," he said. "Nobody can say David Lee didn't try his best to make sure it's known there was something inappropriate going on."