The Spin Zone: Bertha Maker Hitachi Zosen Bites Back

The embattled maker of Seattle's much-maligned tunnel machine opens up as litigators prepare for battle.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

Last April, as Seattle’s tunnel-boring machine, Bertha, closed in on completing its long-delayed task, Hitachi Zosen, the Japanese maker of the machine, was surprised to learn its executives weren’t invited to the ceremony celebrating the moment when Bertha would break through the wall at the end of its arduous 2-mile journey.

When the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) and its contractor, Seattle Tunnel Partners (STP), ultimately agreed to allow Hitachi executives to view the event, it was only on the condition that they not stand with other dignitaries on a specially built viewing platform. WSDOT even tried to block the president of Hitachi’s American subsidiary, who had flown in from New York, from speaking with the media.

An engineering company celebrated four years ago for manufacturing the world’s largest tunnel-boring machine with many innovative features had fallen from grace. WSDOT blamed Hitachi Zosen Corporation for delays that added an estimated $149 million to the cost of the $3.2 billion Alaskan Way viaduct replacement project. STP, meanwhile, filed a suit seeking $480 million from the state for additional costs.

Now, with the tunneling complete and its employees packing up to leave Seattle, Hitachi Zosen has belatedly decided it must tell its side of the story — a story that might have provided a path toward resolution and avoided what may be years of costly litigation.

With about $3.5 billion in sales, Hitachi Zosen is a fraction the size of Hitachi Ltd., the Japanese electronics company for which it is often mistaken. But it has a good reputation in the underground-construction industry, having built boring machines for 1,300 tunnels around the world. It built Brenda, which successfully dug Sound Transit’s tunnel from downtown Seattle to the University of Washington Station at Husky Stadium and is now drilling the 3.6-mile tunnel to Northgate. Its 44-foot-diamater machine dug a six-mile tunnel under Tokyo Bay.

Tunnel boring frequently involves challenges and delays, but Hitachi Zosen had never encountered the problems that began on December 5, 2013, when, three days after its 7,000-ton mole hit a 120-foot-long, 8-inch-diameter steel well casing, the machine overheated and ground to a halt. 

As WSDOT and STP sparred over who was responsible for the damage to the machine — named Bertha after Seattle’s first and only female mayor, Bertha Landes — Jack Frost, president of Tutor Perini, one of two firms making up general contractor STP, flew to Japan to visit Hitachi Zosen.

“Now is not the time to assign blame,” Frost told the assembled Hitachi Zosen executives. “If we push ahead and complete this project, we’ll be the heroes.”

Frost suggested Hitachi Zosen temporarily bear the cost of repairing the machine, while STP would cover other costs, including the price of building a concrete pit where Bertha could park while its 2,000-ton cutter head and drive unit were removed and repaired.

Hidetoshi Hirata, Hitachi Zosen’s general manager for project execution, recounted Frost’s words with some bitterness in June as he led a visitor through the shipbuilding facility outside Osaka, where Bertha was manufactured in a dry dock once used to build massive oil tankers. 

Proud of having built Bertha, the first of a new generation of machines able to construct tunnels that could handle two-lane traffic in each direction on two levels, Hitachi Zosen worked hard to repair the machine and complete the project. “We wanted to finish the tunnel and make Seattle happy with the results,” says Hirata. “It was naniwa bushi,” the Osaka spirit.

Far from being treated as a hero, the company became a scapegoat. Washington Governor Jay Inslee lashed out at Hitachi Zosen after repair work dragged on and critics of the project began calling for its abandonment. Inslee told KIRO-FM that the state had to do what any responsible homeowner would do with a contractor who was behind on a remodeling job: “You ride them and beat them like a cheap mule, if you will.”

Inslee ridiculed the notion that the casing left in Bertha’s path could have damaged the machine, insisting Bertha should have been able to cut through it “like cheese.” He later told KUOW-FM that the company messed up by building a boring machine that was “sort of a four-cylinder Datsun. It didn’t cut the mustard.”

Inslee said Hitachi Zosen “took it apart and rebuilt it in fundamental ways, then finished it with an F-150 eight-cylinder Ford. This is a new machine that they redesigned because the first one wouldn’t work.”

STP also turned on Hitachi Zosen. After suing its insurers in King County Superior Court for the $80 million it believed it was due on a policy for which it had paid $25 million in premiums, the joint venture of Tutor Perini and Dragados USA sued Hitachi Zosen to cover the cost overruns in the event the insurers wouldn’t pay.

Hitachi Zosen was surprised when WSDOT, which is a party to the suit against the insurance companies, started behaving as if it didn’t want the insurance money. WSDOT asked the court to move the case to Thurston County, where WSDOT and STP were battling each other in a separate lawsuit over who should pay for the additional costs resulting from the damage to Bertha. If the two had been combined, the insurance case, the simpler of the two lawsuits, might have been delayed and lost in the complexity of the multiple parties and multiple claims arising from the project. The logic? Success against the insurers would imply external issues like the steel casing might have played a role in the damage to Bertha, thereby putting the state in a weaker position vis-à-vis STP.

WSDOT declines to comment directly on its legal strategy, issuing this statement: “WSDOT has always denied Seattle Tunnel Partners’ claims that an eight-inch steel well casing caused the tunneling machine damage.” 

Hitachi Zosen, long averse to litigation, reluctantly joined the fray. It countersued STP for the $25 million it says it was never paid for the boring machine, and an additional $80 million for repairs to Bertha.

Hitachi Zosen executives say their primary interest is in finding out what really happened so it can manufacture even better machines. Based on evidence gathered so far, Soichi Takaura, general manager of the company’s Shield TBM unit, believes the damage was caused by a combination of improper operation by STP and the machine’s encounter with the well casing.

Bertha was an earth pressure balance machine (EPBM) designed to work with many varieties of soil and sand. It’s a device Hitachi Zosen has special expertise in building. For the machine to work, even pressure must be maintained on the face of the tunnel as the cutter head scrapes away rock and soil. Various additives are mixed into the soil to make it a toothpaste-like substance that can be drawn into a chamber behind the cutter head to apply balancing pressure against the tunnel face. That pressure is controlled by a massive corkscrew that draws soil from the chamber and out on a conveyor belt to its back end, where the soil can be transferred to trucks and carried away. When that mixture gets too soft or too hard and cannot be drawn through the chamber, the machine can have trouble moving forward and can overheat.

In late August, Hitachi Zosen executives, from left, Yukinobu Nakamoto, Shinji Ogaki and Hidetoshi Hirata posed
in South Lake Union at the northern end of the viaduct replacement tunnel dug by Bertha.

Because the machine had a diameter of nearly 58 feet, substantially larger than any previous tunneling machine, operators were simultaneously dealing with many kinds of soil, says Shinji Ogaki, Hitachi Zosen’s project manager at the Seattle site. He points to a chart displaying the clay, gravel and other soils Bertha had to contend with, which may have made operating the machine more complicated than those the operators had been accustomed to.

Howard Handewith, a Seattle-based tunneling expert, suspects the industry may be reaching the limit to how big boring machines can get. “I admire good Japanese engineering,” he says, “but nobody had built a machine that big before, so nobody could have known what it would do.”

The unprecedented size of the cutter head also may have made the machine more difficult to manipulate. Among the many innovations Hitachi Zosen incorporated into Bertha at the request of STP and WSDOT were special atmospheric chambers that would allow workers to adapt more easily to the high-pressure environment required to do maintenance, such as replacing worn cutters. That capability was designed to allow STP to complete the project more quickly, but it also required the cutter head to be substantially thicker, making it harder to maneuver.

Whatever the reason, Ogaki says, some of the operators driving the machine had trouble keeping the soil at the right consistency. There were times when the soil was as hard as concrete, requiring workers to use jackhammers to loosen it so it could be carried through the conveyor system. Although Ogaki says he suggested to STP in several instances that it use more additives to soften the soil, the contractor declined to do so. He says he is not sure whether the high cost of the additives was a factor in that decision.

“When you face conditions like that, you should slow down and get the soil mixture right,” says Takaura. If STP kept pushing when the soil was hard and the machine kept reaching high temperatures, that could have stressed the machine and made it more susceptible to damage when the machine hit the casing, he says. “The pipe may be just 8 inches in diameter, but when it gets inside the machine, it will do damage.” 

“Even if a sports car is advertised as being able to go 200 kilometers an hour,” Takaura adds, “that doesn’t mean you can take it out on some dirt mountain road and go that fast. These machines have to be treated properly.” 

One possible factor, says Hitachi Zosen, could have been STP’s desire to complete the project quickly. Under the contract, the company would have earned an additional $25 million  if the tunnel could be completed 10 months ahead of what was already an aggressive schedule, giving STP a strong incentive to push the machine to its limits. STP declined to comment on its operation of Bertha, but reiterated that it was the steel well casing that damaged the machine.

Hitachi Zosen believes that when Bertha hit the well casing, the steel got tangled up in the teeth of the machine’s cutter head, damaging the teeth and making it harder for the machine to continue digging. Pieces of the pipe also broke off and were sucked into the machine, clogging its innards. When the machine wouldn’t progress, and even after it flashed warning signals, the operators continued to push Bertha forward. The 27,000 kilowatts of power driving the machine, instead of being applied to carve the soil, turned into heat, damaging the seals and allowing debris to enter and impair the machine.

Governor Inslee’s statement that Bertha should have been able to cut through the well casing “like cheese” reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how tunnel-boring machines work, says Hirata. “Boring machines don’t cut,” he says. “They scratch at the surface of the soil or rock and then scrape it away.” 

Most tunneling experts agree the machines are not designed to deal with metal, one reason the concrete wall Bertha ground through to start its journey was reinforced with fiberglass bars rather than steel. But many experts are also skeptical that the casing alone could have damaged a machine of Bertha’s size.

In a recent court filing, Bertha’s insurers quote documents and statements uncovered in the discovery process that suggest Bertha wasn’t properly designed for the task — something Hitachi Zosen vigorously denies. A similar analysis seems to be behind Inslee’s suggestion, echoed by the insurers, that Hitachi Zosen had to transform Bertha into a stiffer machine to allow it to complete the tunnel. 

Responds Hirata: “The idea that a machine repaired on site could be better than a machine built in the factory is ludicrous.”

And Hirata disagrees vigorously with STP’s characterization that the tons of steel added to Bertha during its repair were to stiffen the machine. “That’s [STP] propaganda,” he asserts. He says the added steel was necessary to create a new seal on another surface of the machine and to replace support jacks that were removed for that purpose.

The tunneling proceeded more smoothly after the repairs, Hitachi Zosen believes, not because the machine was better, but because STP was more cautious about operating it.

Ogaki, who was frequently on site, says STP was more careful after the repair about examining samples of soil to make sure they were the proper consistency.

What really led to Bertha’s damage may never be fully understood. Chances are it was a combination of the well casing, operator error and challenges related to Bertha’s size. But the legal machinations have drawn attention away from two important points.

The first is that the tunnel project wasn’t abandoned.

“The project was successful in that it will be completed,” says Patricia Galloway, CEO of Cle Elum-based Pegasus-Global Holdings, a leading adviser on mega projects. She was chair of the state’s three-member expert review panel appointed by the state Legislature as a neutral party to provide guidance. Although skeptics thought otherwise, Galloway says the panel knew that, with the whole world watching, Hitachi Zosen and STP would make sure Bertha got the job done.

“I don’t care what people say,” said one worker as he supervised the removal of  bearings the size of paper-towel rolls (but about 60 times heavier) this summer. “This was an amazing machine.”

Bertha has indeed pioneered a new generation of mega size boring machines that are now drilling large-diameter tunnels in Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Second, Galloway says the state did an “outstanding job” putting together a solid contract with many innovative provisions. But it turns out the state did not follow through on the processes it had established. Although a dispute resolution board was created to address conflicts during the project, for example, both WSDOT and STP stopped using the board when its decisions didn’t go their way. 

“What I told both owners and contractors is that it doesn’t help to do a blame game since a jury or arbitrator will ultimately make its decisions based on facts and witnesses,” says Galloway. “It’s unfortunate that Governor Inslee came out with the blame game, but STP was also making statements against WSDOT.”

Similarly, when the expert review panel set up a meeting with Hitachi Zosen executives to get their viewpoint on what might have damaged Bertha, Linea Laird, WSDOT’s chief engineer, telephoned Galloway to say the meeting could not take place. The Legislature later cut off funding for the panel.

If WSDOT had allowed the expert panel to talk to Hitachi Zosen, WSDOT might have gathered information that would have helped it come to a resolution with STP, its contractor, avoiding expensive litigation, Galloway believes.

There are still two years left in the project, and already hundreds of thousands of pages have been provided in discovery in several languages. Terabytes of physical data from the machine must be analyzed, and up to 100 depositions will be taken under oath to find out what happened in the tunnel.

When courts are involved, says Galloway, “It will typically cost everyone more money as it is not simply the cost of lawyers, experts, and arbitrators … but the time of those who need to be involved in the process, which takes valuable resources from other projects.” 

INVESTING IN INFRASTRUCTURE
• $3.2 billion: Estimated cost of the state’s viaduct replacement program, which encompasses more than 30 projects.

• $2.1 billion: Cost of the tunnel and related support work.

• $80 million: Cost to build the 57.5-foot-diameter boring machine made by Hitachi Zosen.

• $100 million+: Cost to fix it.

• Early 2019: When WSDOT estimates the tunnel will be open to traffic, based on projections by Seattle Tunnel Partners. Toll rates for the tunnel have not been determined. 

HOW THIS STORY WAS REPORTED
Leslie Helm, executive editor of Seattle Business magazine, grew up in Japan. He speaks fluent Japanese and recently met with executives of Hitachi Zosen Corporation — in Osaka and inside the Seattle tunnel — to discuss the company’s position in its dispute with Seattle Tunnel Partners and the Washington State Department of Transportation over delays in the viaduct replacement tunnel project linked to Hitachi Zosen’s tunnel-boring machine.

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