The recent news about the sinking Millennium Tower in San Francisco merits attention. There was an upper floor Millennium Tower resident who noticed when putting a golf ball on one of those office greens that her ball rolled off to the side. Then came the revelation that the 58-story tower she lived in on 301 Mission Street in San Francisco has sunk sixteen inches and is tilting six inches at the top. Again, there is a lot of debate on the role of government, particularly in private lives. That’s not the point here.
The point of this blog entry is to highlight the failure of the California state government to discharge a sacred duty. This month, November 2016, San Francisco filed a lawsuit against the Millennium Tower builders Mission Street Developers LLC. Per a Wikipedia entry, “As built plans show that the developer had approval to install driven concrete piles only 80 feet deep into mud fill and sand, and not 200 feet which is where the bedrock starts – normal for this part of San Francisco.”
Are you kidding me? San Francisco is one of my favorite cities. The diversity, concentration of brainpower, and rich history make it one of the world’s great cities. It sits atop the San Francisco Bay which has spawned the transistor, silicon, and social media industries – just to name a few. It is in California, a state that prides itself in its expansive government which claims to be progressive, generous to its citizens, and a model for the country and the world.
California relies on its unmatched brainpower to develop more stringent regulatory directives than federal law requires. And, with its well-funded nation-size state government, its auditors comb industries round the clock to ensure compliance. So how in the hell did the state and federal regulators not catch that a 58 story tower – being constructed in a city that was once destroyed by an earthquake – was built on landfill? If an overarching government can't get that right, what else is amiss?
Sue the developers? Sure, but also yank in former Governor Schwarzenegger and current Governor Brown and every elected and appointed official down to the construction inspectors and find out what went wrong. Hold them accountable, each and every one. There is something so systemically wrong with what the regulators enabled in the Millennium Tower build that a lawsuit doesn’t cut it.
Ensuring proper construction of buildings and infrastructure is one of the most important governmental duties. If we pay taxes for nothing else, we pay taxes to the government to ensure safe construction. Two years ago I entered a highly regulated industry and have been through many audits. I can tell you, the enforcement ability of regulators is total; they can shut down non-compliant companies with the stroke of a pen. Just ask Theranos. No way on God’s green earth in the richest most regulated city in the richest most regulated state should the Millennium Tower get built on landfill.
I ask again, what went wrong? A whole host of taxpayer funded elected and unelected officials were asleep at the switch. How can that be? Something is systemically awry in California’s regulatory organizations and it should be investigated and fixed – period, end of sentence.
The Millennium Tower is not the first signal of the problem. In September 2010 a natural gas pipeline exploded in San Bruno, California with a wall of fire 1000 feet high that leveled houses and killed eight people. Why? Investigators in 2011 reported they found numerous defective welds in the pipeline. It’s a shame the investigators weren’t looking in 2009. What corrective action did this prompt? Per Wikipedia, “On April 9, 2015, the Public Utilities Commission fined PG&E $1.6 billion.” That makes me feel better.
Another example is the eastern span replacement of the San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge. In the late 1990s Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown expended huge time and effort bickering over which side of the existing bridge to build the new span. Perhaps that time would’ve been better spent making sure the bridge was built to code. One could write a book on the ongoing problems with that Bay Bridge span. The FBI itself was investigating welds, three-inch diameter connecting bolts failed, and improper application of sealant is causing interior moisture with the accompanying corrosion. That’s only the tip of the iceberg. Again, how does this happen?
A clue comes from the Sacramento Bee, which reported on July 31, 2014: "A California Senate report released Thursday said that Department of Transportation managers ‘gagged and banished’ at least nine top experts for the new $6.5 billion San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after they complained about substandard work by the Shanghai, China, firm that built much of the span." Now there is talk of criminal prosecution of Caltrans.
The citizens of California and the country deserve more. This gross dereliction of duty is unacceptable and it will continue if the root cause isn’t found and corrected. Three things should happen: One, admission of a systemic regulatory problem; two, FULL transparency on the regulatory activities in all three of these failures (Millennium Tower, San Bruno explosion, and east span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge) that should have prevented these fiascos; and three, a money map showing the flow of every dollar associated with all organizations responsible for these projects.
This systemic failing must be corrected. Lawsuits don’t cut it. Dereliction of governmental duty requires a more vigilant citizenry. Something very fundamental is wrong. How much more California infrastructure is suspect? How much more human toll will we accept before demanding action? Start with admission of the problem - then let's dig in with full transparency and get it fixed.