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In the presidential debate last week, Republican Donald Trump attacked China’s trade policies and Democrat Hillary Clinton charged that Trump used “Chinese steel” in his own projects. As it happens, the most eager American user of Chinese steel is the government of California, on the new span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
Back in 2011, Dave Barboza’s New York Times article on the bridge came headlined, “Bridge Comes to San Francisco With a Made-in-China Label,” observing that “construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them are a Made in China affair. California officials say the state saved hundreds of millions of dollars by turning to China.” California officials even declined to apply for federal funding because the “Buy America” provisos “would probably have required purchasing more expensive steel and fabrication from United States manufacturers.” The bridge was not yet completed, but CalTrans program manager Tony Anziano bragged, “They’ve produced a pretty impressive bridge for us.” As state hearings in Sacramento in early 2014 confirmed, it didn’t exactly turn out that way.
The Chinese company ZPMC had actually never built a bridge and failed on key quality control measures. The Chinese steel was prone to embrittlement, a metallurgist testified, and that is why a number of rods on the bridge had cracked. The Chinese welds also cracked and 750 panels needed to be repaired. As witnesses testified, Caltrans bosses ignored and downplayed these costly problems, reassigned the whistleblowers, and even told engineers not to write things down to avoid public disclosure. One whistleblower even called for a “criminal investigation,” but none ever took place. Caltrans boss Tony Anziano, who had been so impressed with the Chinese in 2011, conveniently retired. Confronted with the safety problems, governor Jerry Brown famously quipped, “I mean, look, shit happens.”
Chinese labor and Chinese steel was supposed to save “hundreds of millions of dollars,” but the new Bay Bridge span came in $5 billion over budget and ten years late. “It’s frustrating that there’s never been anyone in the management of the bridge who has been held accountable,” lamented Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, who held the hearings as a state senator. The safety issues remain, and the crucial test will come in the next Bay Area earthquake.