Official told late of light collapse
Mullan faults staff for month’s delay; transport chief orders inquiry
Lights in an Interstate 90 tunnel were being worked on last week. Crews began inspections after a 110-pound light crashed. (David L. Ryan/Globe Staff)
Globe Staff / March 24, 2011
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The state’s top transportation official now admits that his agency withheld information from the public about potentially hazardous light fixtures over drivers’ heads in the Big Dig tunnel system because his own staff did not tell him about the problem for a month.
Transportation Secretary Jeffrey B. Mullan said he did not learn about a Feb. 8 incident in which a corroded 110-pound light crashed onto the roadway in the Thomas P. “Tip’’ O’Neill Jr. Tunnel until March 9. He told Governor Deval Patrick about the problem March 15, the night before informing the general public.
A senior aide to Mullan said that the road crew that initially cleaned up the fallen fixture treated it as road debris to be disposed of, apparently not appreciating the public safety threat posed by heavy falling objects in a tunnel used by more than 100,000 vehicles daily. No vehicle was damaged, but an internal inspection of light fixtures, conducted largely without Mullan’s knowledge, found about 300 that showed signs of corrosion where they are attached to the tunnel ceiling.
“I should have known earlier; no question about it,’’ Mullan said in an interview yesterday. “It was clearly a lapse in internal communication.’’
Mullan’s disclosure represents the second significant change in his account of how he handled the collapsed light fixture issue, which summoned up memories of a 2006 tunnel ceiling collapse that killed a Jamaica Plain woman as she rode in a car. Initially, Mullan said that he had chosen to withhold information about the incident from the public for weeks because he wanted a thorough investigation of the light fixture failure.
“I wanted to have a better idea of what exactly we were dealing with, whether or not this was an isolated situation or more of a systemic issue,’’ Mullan said at the March 16 press conference, adding that “it takes a while to conduct all of the reviews.’’
A day later, however, under pressure from numerous legislators, he publicly acknowledged he erred in not making the information public immediately.
Now Mullan is saying that he could not have informed the public before March 9 because he himself did not know due to a breakdown in communications within the state transportation bureaucracy. If he had known earlier, Mullan said, he would have made it public earlier.
However, Mullan said he was speaking on behalf of the transportation organization as a whole when he said on March 16 that notification was delayed so he could investigate the incident and possibly avoid a panic.
“I’m responsible for the organization, and that is what you do when you run an organization,’’ he said of his public statement, which made it seem that he personally had decided not to make the issue public. “I’m the head of the organization, and I take 100 percent responsibility for it.’’
Mullan stressed that engineers under the direction of Helmut Ernst, chief engineer for the Boston area, began investigating long before word percolated up to Mullan at a March 9 staff meeting.
Mullan said he has launched an investigation into why he was kept out of loop.
“Now I want to know why I didn’t know earlier,’’ he said.
Asked whether staff members had deliberately failed to inform him, Mullan said that he had no evidence of that, but that the investigation is just beginning.
He said that anyone who downplayed the matter could face discipline, and that protocols for reporting possible safety hazards in the Big Dig tunnels will be tightened.
Only a week ago, Mullan was taking full public blame for the delay in informing the public about the potentially hazardous light fixtures, some of which have suffered corrosion on the aluminum rail by which the lights are suspended from the ceiling.
“Knowing what I know now, with the benefit of hindsight, I made an error,’’ Mullan said in an interview March 17. “And I should have released this information sooner, even without the benefit of perfect information — that’s the difficult balancing test that public officials need to make. That won’t happen again.’’
But now it appears that Mullan got his first inkling that there was a problem on March 1, when he noticed that road crews appeared to be working on the lights. By that time, inspections of the 23,000 light fixtures in the tunnels were well underway. Mullan said that he did not realize a light had actually fallen into the road until March 9.
In fact, state officials informed the Federal Highway Administration, which manages the interstate highway system, about the corrosion problem Feb. 24 at a regularly scheduled meeting attended by midlevel representatives of both agencies, according to Cathy St. Denis, a spokeswoman for the federal agency. But senior transportation officials such as Mullan were not there, and he remained unaware of the corrosion issue.
“There was a lapse in communications both internally and externally,’’ Mullan said. “Now we are going to get to the bottom on it.’’