Steel Industry Protests China’s Role in Bridge Fabrication

The National Steel Bridge Alliance, a division of the Institute of Steel Construction, is criticizing California state officials for outsourcing fabrication of the new San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to China, rather than sourcing the steel and creating the jobs here in the United States.

According to a June 25 article in the New York Times (see “Bridge Comes to San Francisco With A Made-In-China Label” at www.nytimes.com/2011/06/26/business/global/26bridge.html) the California Department of Transportation awarded a contract for the bridge, damaged in the 1989 earthquake, to a joint venture between two American companies, American Bridge and Fluor Enterprises, knowing that much of the specified steel would come from China. In fact, California officials opted not to apply for federal funding for the project to avoid the “Buy America” requirements.

China’s state-owned Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Company eventually produced 28 giant steel modules, each with a roadbed segment about half the size of a football field, and shipped them halfway around the world to Oakland where they are being assembled into the eastern span of the new Bay Bridge, scheduled for completion in 2013. “The assembly work in California, and the pouring of the concrete road surface, will be done by Americans, but construction of the bridge decks and the materials that went into them are a Made in China affair,” the Times reported.

With a $7.2 billion budget, the bridge was to be one of the most expensive structures ever built, but California officials estimated they would save at least $400 million by having so much of the work done in China.

California’s approach to the project has drawn howls of protest from U.S. steel industry and union officials, who dispute the state’s justifications for outsourcing the work and “sending good jobs overseas,” while questioning the quality of Chinese steel and workmanship.

In a letter to the New York Times, NSBA officials assert that the article did not tell the whole story. Specifically, they dispute officials’ claims that “American fabricators didn’t have the capacity or capability to perform the work” and that using the Chinese fabricator would actually produce the $400 million in savings.

“The reason American fabricators couldn’t perform the work had nothing to do with U.S. fabrication capabilities, but with scheduling issues. However, as it turned out, the Chinese fabricators could not meet the original schedule either and the bridge ended up being built on the same schedule originally proposed by the American fabricators. The first delivery of Chinese steel was delivered more than one year behind schedule, and the overall project is more than $5.2 billion over budget and three years behind schedule,” wrote Roger Ferch, NSBA’s executive director.

Ultimately, the use of Chinese fabricators and Chinese steel was extremely short-sighted, he continued. “At a time of high unemployment in the U.S., we find it shameful that a publicly supported project would export jobs…. California exported more than 2,500 manufacturing jobs to China, and then used tax dollars to pay more than 250 public and private employees to go to China to provide training. Essentially, at a time of rising unemployment, California provided the training and funding to make Chinese workers more competitive.”

Any cost saving is the result of Chinese government policies that exploit workers and ignore the environment, he added. “Chinese fabricators and steel mills do not have to meet the same environmental and labor standards as U.S. companies. If they did, any cost differential would quickly evaporate.

“The real issue is that state agencies like Caltrans can get away with exploiting Buy America loopholes, running $6 billion dollars over budget, and all the while shipping construction jobs overseas, without having to answer to anyone,” said Ferch, urging steel producers, distributors and fabricators to speak out.

“This situation is outrageous and it’s critical that we, as a steel community, use our collective ability to push for change. We encourage everyone to reach out to their respective legislators and let them know how you feel about this situation.” For more information, visit www.aisc.org/action

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016