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Big Dig Settlement

Big Dig contractors are admitting responsibility for leaks in its tunnels and for the collapse of ceiling panels that killed Milena Del Valle almost two years ago.

The admissions from Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff are part of a $458 million settlement they, and some of the project's design consultants, have reached with state and federal authorities. Also as part of the agreement detailed yesterday, government prosecutors are dropping criminal charges and civil lawsuits.

WBUR's Fred Thys has more on the story.

TEXT OF STORY:

FRED THYS: At a press conference, the U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts, Michael Sullivan, said Bechtel allowed the I-93 tunnel to open knowing that there were problems with its walls.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Bechtel knew that some of the slurry walls in the tunnel were not built according to contract specifications.

THYS: John McDonald, the chairman of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the Big Dig management consultants, issued a statement saying "We take responsibility for our work." The company also provided background information in which it says that in most cases, the deviations from specifications in the building of the tunnel walls were slight.

Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff also admit fault for allowing the wrong kind of epoxy to be used to hold up the ceiling panels in the I-90 Connector Tunnel. Some panels collapsed in July 2006, killing Milena Del Valle. Sullivan says investigators discovered that Bechtel knew that there were problems with the epoxy.

SULLIVAN: The investigation indicates that as early as 1992, an engineer with Bechtel had identified some concerns with regard to this type of epoxy being used in this type of suspended ceiling.

THYS: The project managers admit that when they first saw five epoxy anchor bolts coming out of the ceiling, they didn't conduct a proper investigation into the problem. The company statement says: "Above all, we deeply regret the tragic death of Milena Del Valle."

Under the agreement, which WBUR first reported on Tuesday, the federal government receives 23 million dollars, the state 434 million dollars. 414 million dollars will go into a trust fund for repairing the Big Dig. Secretary of Transportation Bernard Cohen says the money takes away the uncertainty that the state has had over how it was going to pay for the defects in the project.

BERNARD COHEN: We know that we've got leaks that we need to plug. We know that we've got cracks in some of the concrete in some of the viaducts. We know we've got premature wearing in the roadway on the surface of the roadway.

THYS: Cohen says in the next year or two, those repairs will cost about 85 million dollars.

In exchange for the 458 million dollars, the companies get to keep bidding for state and federal contracts.

TOM HEALEY: The Commonwealth and the citizens of the Commonwealth have been snookered. It's that simple.

THYS: Wellesley Attorney Tom Healey sued Bechtel for a construction accident that injured a worker when the Big Dig was being built. He settled for an amount he's not allowed to disclose. He says it would be normal procedure for Bechtel to review the designs and the project, and to figure out what could go wrong and how much it would cost.

HEALEY: They would not simply have offered 400 million dollars without getting some estimate or idea of potential errors and potential future costs. They've capped their losses at 400 million dollars. If the slurry walls fail, we may be looking at a one- to two-billion-dollar failure.

THYS: Attorney-General Martha Coakley said that had she been able to convict Bechtel and Parsons Brinckerhoff for involuntary manslaughter in the death of Del Valle, the contractors would only have paid, at most, a thousand dollars.

MARTHA COAKLEY: The amount of money that has been paid and will be paid over the next several days and months as a means of punishment and restitution to the Commonwealth for the flaws in this system far outweigh what we could have accomplished certainly in a criminal indictment and perhaps even in a complicated and endless appeals in a civil matter.

THYS: The agreement allows state and federal prosecutors to go after the contractors should another catastrophic event occur.

COAKLEY: We are uh... keeping our fingers crossed that it will not.

THYS: But, Coakley said, there have been so many issues with this tunnel. For the next ten years, the state can collect up to 100 million dollars for each major new problem with the Big Dig.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys.

This program aired on January 24, 2008. The audio for this program is not available.

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