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WSDOT defends Bertha, Seattle tunnel project

Seattle learned Friday that an eight-inch steel pipe may be to blame for Bertha's blockage. (WSDOT Flickr)

After nearly a month of no movement, Seattle learned Friday what was blocking Bertha, the massive drill stuck below the city.

Dori was shocked to learn that an eight-inch steel pipe was being blamed for the blockage. It’s a steel pipe the Washington State Department of Transportation put there in 2002 after the Nisqually Earthquake to monitor groundwater.

State Secretary of Transportation Lynn Peterson joined KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show on Monday. She said it’s not embarrassing, but frustrating.

“In her first 1,000 feet, she chewed through timber pilings, boulders, PVC pipe, the fiberglass that was in the reinforcing wall. She’s gone through a lot and when she hit this, it didn’t even phase her.”

Peterson said Bertha went another 90 feet past the steel pipe and 15 concrete rings were put into place behind her.

“There was no reason to suspect that was going to cause that much issue later,” said Peterson. She added that the contractors believe the pipe is a contributing factor – they’re not totally sure it’s the only factor.

Peterson admitted that the pipe’s existence was included in past reports to the contractor before the $2 billion tunnel project began.

“We knew it was located there. It was in the reference materials and it’s going to be a conversation for the long haul.”

While a source told KIRO Radio about the eight-inch steel pipe on Dec. 25, Peterson said the WSDOT did not have confirmation. But they knew they hit something that was steel.

“It could have been something else.”

Peterson said any delays or cost overruns would only be speculative and their priority is the safety of the people working alongside Bertha. On Tuesday, crews will use a five foot diameter pipe in an effort to extract some of the steel casing.

The next step is removing steel from Bertha’s cutting surface and figuring out what else could be causing her stall. Unfortunately, Bertha has no reverse.

As for employees whose work is now on hold while Bertha is stopped, Peterson said they are going to try to make up lost time and there are incentives for the contractors to make that happen. But she said they did set aside money and budgeted time in the event of a delay.

Peterson said Dori’s prediction of over a billion dollars in overruns is high.

This isn’t the first time Bertha has been delayed. She was stopped for about a month in 2013, after drilling only 24 feet, for a labor dispute and subsequent problems restarting.

The WSDOT has broken down Bertha’s progress below Seattle into 10 zones; Bertha is stuck in the first zone.

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