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McNichol: To Make the US Stronger, You're Going to Need Some Chinese Steel

San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge
Bloomberg | Getty Images
San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge

The coming of the next “big one” led to the use of Chinese steel in the rebuilding of a national icon - one of the busiest bridges in the world: The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Looming natural disasters, willful neglect and infirmity of America’s infrastructure demand our rebuilding. Reconstruction, however, is going to require Sino steel.

Politics have stirred up a media storm over the use of foreign steel in the Bay Bridge. Misplaced anger by a few jeopardizes US national security. Slowing down the strengthening of vital Homeland Security links over objections to the origin of steel fabrication creates risk.

American steel is excellent. So too are the skills of our metallurgists. That’s not the point. Three issues are driving the use of foreign steel over domestic steel: capacity, capacity, capacity.

We the people of the United States fabricate less steel than the island nation of Japan, currently putting out 7% of the world’s metal materials. China forges nearly half of the world’s steel. Today, the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) is building the greatest bridges in the world with the longest spans while using the most modern metallurgy methods. The Middle Kingdom is the undisputed leader in steel production.

Lives are on the line as we defer work on fracture-critical, structurally deficient, and functionally obsolete bridges. America needs to tap into the best of the world market’s steel production capacity. This too helps save a precious resource known to many as money.

The Tappan Zee Bridge crossing the Hudson River in New York is similar to the East Span of the Oakland- San Francisco Bay Bridge that’s being replaced. They’re both structurally deficient – in imminent danger of collapse. The two are nearly identical in length – roughly three miles long – requiring an enormous capacity of steel production - and money. Keeping the Tap’s rebuilding within the proposed $5 billion budget is unlikely without going overseas for steel.

"We have a bridge that carries almost 300,000 vehicles a day, one of the busiest bridges in the country, that’s probably going to fail – catastrophically - in the next major earthquake. We need to get the new bridge done as quickly as possible." -CA's Toll Bridge Program Oversight Comm., Tony Anziano

President Obama, New York Governor Cuomo, and daily commuters on the Tap’s deck are calling for immediate action. Forging the required steel in short time leads the US to Sino steel. If so, are we really going debate the political ideology of erecting Chinese steel over the Hudson - or any US body of water?

Wherever the two meet, public safety and politics, it’s public safety that must prevail.

On October 17th, 1989, a “big one,” called the Loma Prieta Earthquake, rocked the Bay Bridge and its feeder freeway, the I-880 Cypress Street Viaduct. The deadliest place during the 7.1 shaker was in a car on or near the Bay Bridge. Over half of the fatalities resulting from the disaster occurred on these highways.

“I didn’t think I was going to make it through. It hit so hard, so fast,” recalls Tim Peterson, now an Oakland City Firefighter. Peterson was driving his personal vehicle on the Cypress Viaduct that afternoon when his world crashed down on him, quashing his truck into a 24-inch steel pancake. Peterson was the lucky one on that stretch of highway. His words are haunting: “There were no survivors in that area…I’m sure it could happen again. And, it will happen again. Maybe even bigger.”

David Schwartz of the US Geological Survey, the scientific arm of the US Department of Interior, stresses the urgency in rebuilding the Bay Bridge, “It’s a real race against time to finish this work before the next earthquake happens. The potential for a bigger earthquake is real. It can happen today, it can wait for ten or fifteen years. We just don’t know. But it’s going to happen.”

“It’s a huge public safety issue. We have a bridge that carries almost 300,000 vehicles a day, one of the busiest bridges in the country, that’s probably going to fail – catastrophically - in the next major earthquake,” stresses Tony Anziano, of California’s Toll Bridge Program Oversight Committee. “We need to get the new bridge done as quickly as possible.”

Why is it taking so long – over two decades – to rebuild the Bay Bridge? Bart Ney, the California Highway Department’s spokesperson for the $7 billion seismic retrofit project puts it this way, “We’re trying to build a world class structure, an architectural icon, and a seismic innovation all at one time in one of the most seismically challenged areas in the world.”

The Bay Bridge is magnificent – its location is not. The super-span sits between two faults: the San Andreas and Hayward.

The steel work on the Bay Bridge was done over there - not here - because of the inability of US fabricators to deliver vast quantities of steel - quickly. Case-in-point: a subcontract on the bridge project involved making two steel box-girder segments that interface with the sections of steel bridge manufactured in China. The box-girders were under the Buy America clause requiring them to be fabricated domestically. Typical of US steel fabricators was the plant in Vancouver, Washington that won the multimillion-dollar job. The Bay Bridge contract choked the domestic steel mill’s production to the point where work on the two box-girders consumed half of the plant’s capacity for two years.

ZPMC plant in Shanghai, China
Photo by: Dan McNichol
ZPMC plant in Shanghai, China

Meanwhile, on an industrial island off Shanghai, inside 20-acres of factory, ZPMC delivered 50 sections of comparable size and greater complexity involving far more welding in less than five years.

Inferior steel some claim?

ZPMC produces nearly 80% of the world’s heavy lifting gantry-cranes in use at nearly every major port on earth including the ones at work at the Port of Oakland in the shadow of the Bay Bridge.

Mike Flowers, Chief Executive Officer for the American Bridge Company, a firm that’s working on the Bay Bridge project explains quality-control in China, “This bridge job was inspected more than any other bridge ever built any place in the world. We engaged PhD metallurgists, inspectors and engineers to back that statement.”

“Do the math,” urges the direct Anziano. “That’s 50 years of fabrication if you were to do it all at that one facility here."

Dan McNichol is an award-winning journalist, a number one best selling author and an international speaker. Among the books he has written are, "The Roads That Built America" and "Asphalt in America." The University of Pennsylvania Press published McNichol’s work in a new book titled, A Legacy of Leadership. Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush have praised the book for its contribution to educating the nation about the challenges of gubernatorial politics. McNichol served as a White House Appointee to the United States Department of Transportation under Secretary Andrew Card. You can learn more about him on his website.