Bridge inspectors unscathed
By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
The builders of the Garcon Point Bridge near Pensacola put it together so fast that they set a speed record and collected a big bonus. Then they set another record: the largest financial penalty in Panhandle history for an environmental crime.
Last year the construction company, Odebrecht-Metric, and three supervisors pleaded guilty to violating the federal Clean Water Act. The company paid $4-million in fines and restitution, and the supervisors paid $1,000 fines and were put on probation.
To build the 3.5-mile-long bridge so quickly, the company cut corners, dumping waste into Pensacola Bay instead of disposing of it properly. Employees said it was the most blatant and widespread dumping they had ever seen. One said they dumped enough cement "to surface a two-lane highway across the bay."
Inspectors from Figg Bridge Engineers were supposed to be overseeing Odebrecht-Metric's work. Construction workers said Figg's inspectors witnessed the dumping but did nothing.
Not true, says Figg. "If a contractor is going to make an illegal dumping, they are not going to do it in front of an inspector," executive vice president Linda Figg wrote in response to questions from the St. Petersburg Times.
But Figg's environmental consultant told investigators that "if it happened, Figg would have seen it." One Figg inspector told investigators that he did see dumping, but his boss told him not to worry about it.
Figg was not charged with any crime. In fact, after opponents of a Figg bridge in Port St. Lucie accused Figg of being a target in the Garcon Point Bridge investigation, the company sued them for slander. Figg contends the company "is not now, nor has Figg ever been under investigation."
If Figg was not investigated, then it should have been, contends one environmental activist who spent years battling the $53-million span known as "Bo's Bridge" because it was the pet project of former House Speaker Bolley "Bo" Johnson.
"Figg absolutely should be held responsible," said activist Linda Young. "There is no doubt in my mind they knew exactly what was going on."
Founded in 1978 by Eugene Figg Jr., Figg Bridge Engineers is the only national engineering firm that works on nothing but bridges. The Tallahassee company has worked on bridges in 30 states and four foreign countries. Among its award-winning projects: the Sunshine Skyway.
The company founder is also a major campaign contributor. Last October, Figg wrote a check for $45,000 to the state GOP. He has donated thousands more to candidates, including giving $500 to state Sen. Ken Pruitt, who has backed the Figg bridge over environmentally sensitive land in Port St. Lucie.
Figg executives say they specialize in bridges that have no funding. They help local officials get seed money from a state fund for toll roads, then help them float bonds to be paid back using tolls collected from bridge traffic.
For the Garcon Point Bridge, Figg did more than design the span for the Santa Rosa Bridge Authority.
"They were effectively the staff of the authority," said former authority financial adviser Joe Mooney, who was ousted for questioning the need for the bridge. "They did the minutes, ran the meetings, coordinated the selection of consultants."
Figg had a powerful partner in pushing the Garcon Point Bridge. As House speaker, Johnson, a Milton Democrat, had the clout to bend state agencies to his will, waiving rules and passing special laws.
Critics called the bridge a boondoggle that would harm the bay and never attract enough motorists. Since it opened in 1999 they have had ample opportunity to say, "I told you so."
Johnson went to federal prison on unrelated tax evasion charges. As predicted, "Bo's Bridge" has drawn so few drivers the bridge authority may default on its $95-million bond issue next month.
Anglers fishing under the bridge while it was being built narrowly missed being hit by waste tossed in the water by Odebrecht-Metric workers. They notified the state Department of Environmental Protection, leading to the criminal investigation.
Workers threw leftover pilings into the water rather than barging them back to shore. And instead of properly disposing of wet cement from the crane buckets, crane operators washed the buckets in the bay, sending long, gray plumes of sediment spinning into the current.
Investigators say that Larry Baxter told them he "is personally responsible for the dumping of hundreds of tons of wet cement and waste pilings as a crane operator at the site. Baxter dumped wet cement and waste pilings into the water on a daily basis. . . . Baxter advised that he dumped many waste pilings which were 40 feet long."
Baxter and several other employees said Figg inspectors were on the scene constantly and witnessed the dumping their supervisors had ordered.
Not true, wrote Linda Figg: "Inspectors perform random reviews of the contractor's work during normal business hours."
But investigators say that Figg inspector Scott Case told them he did witness the dumping:
"Case recounted that after the crane buckets were emptied of cement they were routinely washed in the bay. Case said that he had spoken to Pat Hickox, Figg's resident engineer, about this procedure and Hickox advised that it was 'okay.' "
Actually it was not okay, according to Figg's own environmental consultant, Sandy Young.
"Young was asked how much wet cement would have been acceptable to dump in the water on a project like the Garcon Point Bridge," investigators wrote. "Young replied, 'Not a drop. It would violate water quality standards.' "
Linda Figg said the company has made no changes in its procedures as a result of the dumping debacle.
Although a state agency initiated the investigation, Odebrecht-Metric was indicted by a federal grand jury.
"The reason Figg wasn't charged didn't have anything to do with DEP," said Lucia Ross of the DEP. "That was up to the feds to charge whoever they wanted."
U.S. Justice Department officials, citing grand jury secrecy, declined to comment on Figg's role. They did confirm that no further charges will be filed.
Former federal prosecutor Richard Windsor, who now represents environmental groups in civil suits, said that even though a company did not actively participate in illegal dumping it might still be liable. To be paid for work on a government construction project, inspectors have to provide written assurance the work was done correctly, he said.
"If you hand in a false piece of paper to the state, that's criminal," Windsor said.
But the Santa Rosa Bridge Authority has not questioned Figg's role in the case.
"We didn't see any error that Figg made," Vice Chairman Garnett Breeding said last week. "It's tough to obey all the rules."
-- Staff researchers Caryn Baird, John Martin and Kitty Bennett contributed to this story.
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