Anna Mehler Paperny, Global News
B.C. Transportation Minister Mary Polak says documents obtained by Global News detailing concerns about ice falling from the Port Mann bridge just weeks before ice fell from the Port Mann Bridge prove the province did its due diligence in asking contractor Kiewit-Flatiron for evidence the structure would be safe.
These documents, obtained through an access-to-information request, indicate that while the Port Mann Bridge’s designers and builders were to prepare for icy cables from Day One, concerns that persisted up until weeks before the bridge opened proved prescient: The storm that hit was beyond what they’d prepped for.
“We had continued to go back and forth with the company, asking them for assurances the efforts they put in place would be sufficient. And they continued to provide us with information that we felt was satisfactory,” Polak said in an interview.
“It didn’t work.”
And in many ways, the Omaha, NE-based company tasked with building the multi-billion-dollar bridge has an impressive track record in British Columbia: Construction giant Kiewit Corp. boasts satellite offices around the world. In B.C. it’s worked on the Sea-to-Sky Highway upgrade, Vancouver’s Skytrain and multiple hydroelectric projects.
According to Elections B.C.’s website it has also donated more than $96,000 to the B.C. Liberals since 2005, the bulk of that in 2009.
In March of that year Transportation Investment Corporation – a Crown company established to steer the bridge’s construction – awarded Kiewit and Flatiron Corp. the Port Mann Bridge contract. That fall, Crown corporation BC Hydro took Kiewit to court in a dispute over contractor payments on a Sea-to-Sky project (they eventually settled).
A Global News story tomorrow will outline a worksite death that resulted in a record-setting fine for the company – the most prominent of several safety concerns.
Now, engineers from Kiewit/Flatiron and the B.C. government are trying to figure out whether last December’s hail of bridge ice was a freak of nature or a new climatic normal, and what it would take to prevent it if it happens again.
‘It may not be preventable’
In response to questions from Global News, Transportation Investment Corporation spokesman Max Logan noted that Kiewit has been subject to third-party reviews by independent engineers, as well as “embedded TI Corp quality surveillance technicians, and further checks and audits.”
“We had language in the contract requiring the company to provide a bridge that did not have ice buildup and wouldn’t fall down in traffic,” Polak said, adding that Kiewit/Flatiron is working with the province to fix the problem.
But University of Calgary engineer and ice specialist Tom Brown argues an ice-free guarantee shouldn’t have been in a contract in the first place.
“I don’t know if you’d get anybody to sign that contract. … It’s like designing a building in Toronto and saying ‘There will not be snow on the roof,” he said.
“It’s probably not preventable, period. It’s probably mitigatable in that you can do things to minimize it.”
The issue of ice building up on outdoor structures isn’t unheard of – it’s “a combination of cold and humidity and the right forms of precipitation at the right temperature,” Brown said. And marine environments are especially at risk.
But the Lower Mainland’s a region of bridges, some of which have cables, none of which have dropped sheets of ice on drivers.
That can lead to two conclusions, Brown said: If there’s no history of falling ice in the area, those extreme conditions are less likely to factor into bridge design. On the other hand, it could mean there’s something about this bridge in particular.
“The thing to do would be to look at, well okay, why has it not happened on the Alex Fraser Bridge? … What’s different?”
If money were no object, Brown says, this dilemma might be simpler. But he argues ultimately you need to weigh the likelihood of ice bombs against a strained public purse.
“There’s a balance between spending dollars to do something or to ensure something doesn’t happen, and the risk associated with it actually happening.”
With files from Leslie Young in Toronto and Grace Ke in Vancouver