In July, when an oil tanker collided with a fuel barge on the Mississippi River near New Orleans, spilling 375,000 gallons of oil, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Mark Rosenker headed to the Crescent City to assess the scene. In a bit of serendipity, Minnesota state Sen. Steve Murphy was also in town for a national state legislators conference, and ran into Rosenker.
The chairman and the DFL legislator from Red Wing already knew each other due to even more dire circumstances almost a year earlier, in the aftermath of the I-35W bridge collapse. In New Orleans, Murphy took the time to bend Rosenker’s ear about the NTSB’s ongoing investigation of why the bridge fell on Aug. 1, 2007.
“I had a conversation with him about the NTSB reports and what other reports had found,” Murphy said Thursday night, referring to the state’s Legislative Auditor’s report on the collapse and another done by Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty. “I told him to look at those other reports, and that that should be part of their final report.”
Instead, as Murphy realized listening to NTSB hearings from Washington on the radio Thursday, it became clear that the chairman did not heed Murphy’s advice. At the very least, as the hearings continue today in anticipation of a draft of the NTSB report being released, federal investigators appear intent on their mission to focus only on scientific explanations as to why the bridge fell.
“The collapse was the result of a serious design error,” Mark Bagnard, the NTSB’s lead investigator on the bridge collapse, said Thursday.
And indeed most of the hearing – which surely previews what will be in the report – focused on the original design flaw of the so-called gusset plates, which the NTSB found were too undersized to hold the bridge’s steel beams together. And much of the testimony in front of the five-member board focused on the addition of some 287 tons of construction materials and equipment situated near the center span.
“That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Murphy, who has sat through more than his share of hearings on the collapse. “But there are more factors to consider than that.”
Culture of MnDOT won’t be in the NTSB findings
Murphy understands the mission of the federal board is to look solely at structural issues. But he also believes some answers can be gleaned from what’s been issue before. Specifically, Murphy pointed to major findings in both the Legislative Auditor’s report and the report by Gray Plant Mooty.
For instance, the auditor’s report, released in February, noted that since 1997, lawmakers and governors alike have funded highway and bridge projects on a pay-as-you-go, borrowing method, an “approach that does not resolve the need for permanent and stable funding to maintain and preserve existing highways and bridges.” The report also noted, among many other things, that the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) “does not adequately document how it follows up on bridge inspectors’ maintenance recommendations.”
As for the Gray Plant Mooty report, which was issued in early May, further problems within MnDOT were found, most notably that an “oral culture” – as one investigator put it – permeated the agency with regard to reports on the bridge, and that documentation on the bridge’s history was scattershot and sometimes inaccurate. That report also found:
• MnDOT policies were not followed in critical respects.
• Decision-making responsibility was diffuse and unclear.
• Financial considerations may have adversely affected decision-making.
• Expert advice was not used effectively.
• MnDOT did not follow its own policies with respect to reporting the deteriorating condition of the bridge and did not document inspection report findings
“If you take all of these reports, you come out with a complete picture of what’s happened,” said Murphy, who heads the Senate’s Transportation committee. Murphy also noted that many steps have been taken to improve MnDOT’s practices, and also that the NTSB is supposed to be “apolitical” and focus only on design and engineering. Still, he figures the final report will be lacking.
“From what I know, I can’t say I disagree with what they’ve found so far,” Murphy said. “But the thing that makes me hesitant to put a stamp of approval on this is that they didn’t look at the process of how we do bridge inspections.”
Politics still plays a role in the aftermath
The very day after the bridge fell, public and elected officials were quick to decry any blame-game or finger-pointing, and the NTSB board will likely help in that regard. In fact, Gov. Tim Pawlenty used the hearings to absolve pretty much everyone but the original design team Thursday.
“NTSB investigators have determined that an original design flaw more than 40 years ago, not corrosion or cracking, led to the bridge’s collapse,” Pawlenty said in a statement. “That original design flaw was unrelated to subsequent inspections or maintenance of the bridge. Unfortunately, during the NTSB’s investigation some individuals leapt to premature conclusions or attempted to use the bridge tragedy for political purposes. Today’s findings underscore why it was important to withhold judgment until the investigation was complete.”
“It seems like nobody owned the responsibility from day one,” Neil Peterson, a former Republican state representative from Bloomington who was ousted from office this election season, said Thursday night. “What’s that saying? Success has many fathers, but unfortunate experiences are orphans.”
Peterson was one lawmaker who was openly aghast during hearings on the Gray Plant Mooty report, and, like Murphy, pored over both reports. The NTSB hearings have done nothing to assuage him.
“There’s going to be a bloodletting, it’s going to be painful to somebody, and it sounds like it’s all going to come down to that poor contractor, PCI, which is a shame,” Peterson said, referring to the construction company that was doing overlay work on the bridge when it fell. “There’s much more than what was happening to that bridge than that day.”
NTSB investigators did raise the question about why MnDOT and the contractor didn’t consider the weight an issue. “You would think that someone would have realized that the aggregate of weight would be an issue,” said NTSB member Steven Chealander, echoing a finding by Gray Plant Mooty that concluded “MnDOT did not sufficiently consider the impact of the 2007 construction activities.”
But for Peterson, the NTSB hearing seemed designed to protect MnDOT and elected officials. “With all the lives lost here, why did it take until November 13 to get a report,” Peterson wondered. “It would be very sad if the election process was part of that delay.”
But more to the point, Peterson said, the NTSB report is in danger of eclipsing other matters in the other reports that he believes played a huge role in the disaster. “It’s the official word now,” he said, “and there are some things we’ll just never know.”
(Although lawsuits filed on behalf of the survivors on Wednesday will certainly lead to more questions, if not answers.)
Murphy also seemed resigned to the fact that the official case, for better or worse, might be closed.
“People lost their lives. There’s been a worry about squabbling and finger-pointing, and I’ve been accused of that,” he said. “But we have to get a complete picture. I was never trying to blame the governor or anyone else. I was just trying to raise the point that some of the fault lies with humans, ourselves.”
G.R. Anderson Jr. covers politics, the state Capitol and issues related to public safety.