Transportation Department looking at bridge contractor

The contractor on the Hawthorne Bridge project has a history of OSHA violations, which it didn't disclose in a pre-bid application.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is asking the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to review the pre-bid qualification application of non-union contractor Abhe & Svoboda on the $21.8 million Hawthorne Bridge renovation project in Portland.

John Kirkpatrick, a business representative of Painters District Council 55, has been compiling information on the Minnesota-based company, which was the low-bidder to overhaul the bridge.

The Columbia-Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council sued the contractor for failing to hire local construction workers and for not being a registered training agent, as required by a Multnomah County ordinance.

County officials claim Abhe & Svoboda was waived of those requirements.

The Painters Union and Iron Workers Union also have evidence showing high levels of lead-contaminated debris have fallen into the Willamette River and grounds near the jobsite since the project began.

Public officials are slow to respond, insisting the accusations are nothing more than a labor dispute, Kirkpatrick charged.

But after the unions complained about high lead levels, the company built a containment tent on two piers on the bridge.

On Sept. 9, however, a gusty east wind tore apart a section of the tent and "a black cloud of stuff blew everywhere," Kirkpatrick said.

McCall's Restaurant, located just north of the bridge on the west side of the river, was dusted with black soot. Kirkpatrick happened to be in the area when the incident happened and he immediately began snapping photos.

Kirkpatrick also took dust samples from the outdoor tables at McCall's. An independent analysis of the soot samples found lead levels of 220 parts per million.

Kirkpatrick contacted the Department of Environmental Quality and went to the contractors' trailer on the project to complain.

According to Kirkpatrick, the contractor said the incident had been reported and that it really wasn't a problem.

"This is a major failure of containment and they're all heading home for the weekend," Kirkpatrick said at the time.

The containment collapse, coupled with other videotape of welding debris falling in the river caught the attention of the Eastern Oregon Mining Association, which on Oct. 7 filed a letter of intent to sue Multnomah County, the State of Oregon and the U.S. Federal Highway Administration for violating the Endangered Species Act.

In addition, the Painters and Iron Workers are now starting to focus attention on Abhe & Svoboda's Hawhtorne Bridge pre-bid qualification application to ODOT.

The projects the contractor listed on its application spanned a decade and painted a glowing assessment of its work practices.

Kirkpatrick cross-referenced the listed projects with an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) data base, where he discovered a history of job-safety violations and fines against Abhe & Svoboda - including fatalities.

"All negative information is omitted from the pre-bid application, the most glaring is the fact that two workers have been killed," Kirkpatrick said.

A 19-year-old man was killed and another seriously injured in August 1996 after a crane owned by Abhe & Svoboda collapsed on a Blatnik Bridge project in Superior, Minnesota.

OSHA found the company responsible for the accident and issued $10,500 in fines. In August of this year another Abhe & Svoboda painter was killed and another injured in a fall from an antenna tower in Cutler, Maine.

In August 1997, OSHA fined the contractor $109,500 for violating scaffolding and fall-protection guidelines on the Cutler project.

In July 1997 it was cited for a serious violation relating to employee lead exposure and in October 1996 it was cited for non-compliance with lead standards on the Blatnick Bridge project.

"There have been numerous citations issued to this company relating to fall protection and lead abatement for many years," Kirkpatrick asserted.

In fact, Oregon-OSHA recently slapped Abhe & Svoboda with $1,125 in fines for violating worker fall protection and scaffolding safety guidelines.

This month the U.S. Department of Transportation sent a letter asking ODOT to review the allegations and "provide us with their findings by Dec. 15."

The Transportation Department also notified the office of the inspector general in Seattle to look into potential fraud charges.

Multnomah County still doesn't appear to be taking the allegations seriously. At the project's halfway point, Multnomah County has scheduled media tours of the bridge Nov. 23-25. In its press release the county's public affairs office wrote: "great care has been taken to protect the environment and workers, including the use of containment structures during blasting and painting."

Multnomah County owns and operates the Hawthorne and five other Willamette River bridges.

November 20, 1998 issue

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