Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

A rush to judgment on the Big Dig tunnel collapse

Posted by David Kassel on August 10, 2007

The race is on to find a scapegoat for the fatal collapse of the ceiling tiles in the Big Dig Tunnel.

 Yesterday, Attorney General Martha Coakley announced a manslaughter indictment against Powers Fasteners, the company that supplied the fast-drying epoxy glue that was used to hold the anchor bolts that subsequently slipped, causing last year’s tragic collapse.

The Boston Globe then followed up today with a story, accusing Powers Fasteners of having covered up problems it was having with the glue on housing projects in Singapore.

Powers Fasteners may well be guilty of all of these charges and may deserve to have the book thrown at them.  But certainly others are to blame in this mess.  Yet from the tenor of The Globe’s reporting, in particular, I’m getting the feeling that the glue supplier is getting stuck, so to speak, with the rap.

The big revelation in today’s Globe story is presented without attribution and yet stated as fact that Powers Fasteners never mentioned the Singapore problems to Big Dig engineers. 

It’s certainly possible that Powers didn’t bring up the Singapore problems to their Boston clients.  But that is not necessarily relevant if, as Powers Fasteners asserts, they were unaware that the fast-drying version of the glue was being used on the Big Dig tunnel.  The fast-drying version, it turns out, was less strong and reliable than the standard epoxy that Powers Fasteners was also supplying to the Big Dig project and reportedly thought was being used to secure the ceiling tiles. 

 In fact, as The Globe notes in the 10th paragraph of the story, Powers Fasteners engineers did warn Big Dig engineers that the fast-drying version was not appropriate for use in securing overhead tiles.  Why is this piece of exculpatory information placed so far down in the story?

If in fact Powers Fasteners was unaware that the fast-dry glue was being used on the Big Dig tunnel ceiling, why would they feel obligated to tell Big Dig officials about the Singapore problems they were having with it?  Say guys, just in case you might decide to use our fast-dry product for a purpose we warned you was unsafe, we want to let you know that our fast-dry product isn’t working well in Singapore. 

Today’s Globe story is based on apparently leaked documents, which immediately raises questions about the motivation of the leakers and who they might have been.  Could it have been Coakley, or could it have been Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the engineering consortium that managed the design and construction of the project?  Could it have been Modern Continental, which actually applied the fast-dry epoxy?  Could it have been the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority?

And how do we know, by the way, that Powers Fasteners didn’t say anything about the Singapore problems to the Big Dig engineers?  The Globe makes that assertion based on the claim of an unnamed lawyer in the case. 

In yesterday’s story, we learned, by the way, that Bechtel is negotiating a settlement of the case with Coakley to get them off the hook of possible criminal and civil charges for numerous defects in the project.

And it is the Globe’s editorial page that informs us today that Coakley may have a conflict of interest in this case because she is pursuing both civil and criminal cases against Powers Fasteners and potentially other parties.  If Powers Fasteners is found guilty of the criminal charge, it will be easier for Coakley to obtain civil convictions and damages against them.

None of this is to assert that Powers Fasteners is a acompletely innocent party here that’s being framed.  It does appear from the documents that The Globe obtained, that they deceived their Singapore supplier about the poor quality of their fast-dry epoxy.  The authorities in Singapore may well have a legal case against them.  But it’s not clear yet, despite The Globe’s assertions, that Coakley has a case against them.

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