State finds electrical problems in Whittier tunnel

Posted: Friday, March 17, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An inspection of the Whittier Tunnel has turned up electrical code violations that could have, in a worst-case scenario, led to explosions, fire, electrocution and possible asphyxiation from toxic fumes in the tunnel, state officials say.

After finding electrical boxes built too close together, improper wiring in the drainage pumps, the wrong type of cable used in area exposed to moisture, and other problems, electrical inspector Larry Coffman fired off a blistering inspection report.

''I told them that a second year apprentice would know better than to install equipment in this manner,'' he wrote to his supervisor. ''I was disappointed that the general contractor and electrical contractor on this project would allow a non-code compliance of this magnitude to be installed.''

The general contractor for the $80 million tunnel project is Kiewit Construction Co. of Seattle, which subcontracted the electrical work to Anchorage-based Norcon Inc.

Coffman's report triggered a war of words between Kiewit and Norcon, according to documents obtained from Alaska Department of Labor. Dennis Bowden, assistant chief of mechanical inspection at the Alaska Department of Labor, said he's not interested in pointing fingers.

''We just want the problems fixed,'' Bowden said.

The project started in 1997 to convert a railroad tunnel near Portage to handle cars, trucks and buses as well as trains, and to build ancillary roads and facilities. The defects are expected to be fixed without delaying the tunnel's scheduled June 7 opening.

Norcon insists that most of the problems are Kiewit's fault. In a written response to the inspection report, Norcon said code violations occurred because Kiewit offered repeated assurances that it had received waivers to the law.

Kiewit never applied for any waivers and the Labor Department never granted any, Bowden said.

Kiewit said Norcon is mistaken.

''We've not in the business of building things that don't meet code,'' said Mike Colpack, Kiewit's tunnel project manager. Colpack said Norcon's statements about the waivers are ''incorrect.''

As far as why the work was done incorrectly or with the wrong materials, Colpack says, it's a matter of how one interprets the electrical code.

''It's not as black and white as one would think,'' Colpack said.

One of the major problems the electrical inspector found was that the drainage pumps on the floor of the tunnel were not designed or installed to be explosion-proof.

The drains capture surface runoff and an electrical pump draws it out of the tunnel into a holding pond. The pumps and wiring should be explosion-proof, according to state fire marshal Gary Powell, because if a vehicle accident occurred and gasoline or vapors leaked in, sparks could set off an explosion or fire.

The Labor Department has ordered the contractor to seal the pumps so that flammables cannot seep in.



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