Last year, an ASU plumbing supervisor spotted a serious hazard sticking out the side of a new dorm. A steam relief discharge line was supposed to run up through the McAllister Academic Villages’ roof.
Instead, it pointed at a parking lot, and was 5 feet above the ground.
“If anyone was near it and a steam relief valve lifted … they would be burned severely or killed,” Ray Greenway, the plumbing supervisor, wrote in an e-mail to several construction officials in May 2006.
Neither of Arizona State University’s construction inspectors received that e-mail. And with ASU expanding at a blistering pace, construction inspectors are supposed to ensure the buildings are safe.
But project inspectors work for the university construction officials they are supposed to monitor, and two of ASU’s former chief construction inspectors say that chain of command creates a conflict of interest and discourages rigorous safety checks.
*** NOTE: An earlier version of this story contained incorrect information. It implied that the project inspectors work for private construction companies. However, the inspectors work for ASU contruction officials, whose projects they are also supposed to monitor.
“If it’s a serious issue that’s going to impact the budget or the schedule, or both, you’re not going to get a pat on the back for finding this,” said Frank Gallagher, who inspected the university’s buildings for eight years.
The university’s top construction officials dispute the former chief inspectors’ claims, arguing ASU inspectors have the necessary freedom. The capital programs department is now determining whether it needs to expand its inspection office.
“We’re in the continuous improvement mode,” said Bruce Jensen, executive director of ASU’s capital programs, which runs university construction. “I think we’ve made some significant improvements over what I’m learning is the old way of inspections and permits. We have a formalized process that is very documented.”
ASU’s construction hierarchy is far different from those of city and county governments, where project managers are separated from inspectors.
“That’s very much standard,” said Forrest Fielder, a plans examiner for Surprise and president of the International Code Council’s local chapter. “Just to retain the true intent (of inspections), which is to have a second set of eyes.”
At ASU, construction managers often fail to request inspections, the former chief inspectors say.
“The building inspection department just makes everyone feel fuzzy and warm on the outside. But in reality, it’s like working with a sovereign nation,” David Eggleston, ASU’s chief inspector in 2005, said of construction project managers. “You have no power.”
The capital programs department has a long form listing every inspection that a construction project must undergo before completion. Jensen said his department ensures that each of those checks is done when it needs to be done.
“If something needs to be ripped out to look at it, they look at it,” Jensen said.
ASU also employs far fewer inspectors than many other universities, including those a fraction of ASU’s size.
The university has never had more than two full-time inspectors to monitor work at its four campuses that cover 12-million square feet. The University of California, Santa Barbara, has a third as many students as ASU, but lists eight construction inspectors.
In July, the university fired Gallagher, chief inspector for nearly two years, leaving ASU with a single inspector for months.
When Gallagher assumed the chief inspector title he became a “contract” employee, meaning the university can choose not to renew his yearly contract.
“We eliminated that position, in terms of that title, because we felt we needed actually more inspectors out doing inspections,” said Dave Brixen, ASU’s vice president for capital programs. “Chief inspector has connotations that it’s a management-type overseer.”
But Gallagher believes it was because he was doing inspections and spotting code violations.
“To cut me loose like that, there was something I was doing that they didn’t want to talk about,” he said.
On Dec. 14, 2006, Gallagher was the chief inspector when a member of ASU’s inspection office found workers at the Hassayampa Academic Village dumping concrete and water used to wash their equipment into storm drains, e-mail records show.
The practice violates state law and carries a $35,000 fine.
The project’s construction manager reported the practice had ended the next day. But on Dec. 18, workers were pumping paint and other liquids into drains on another part of the construction site.
That is the same site where the plumbing supervisor discovered the misrouted steam relief discharge line seven months earlier.
Todd Raven, the project manager, responded that the steam line would not be left that way permanently.
“I believe the system is hot,” Joseph Metzger, associate director of ASU facilities management, wrote. “Final or not, this is an accident waiting to happen.”
E-mails released to the Tribune do not indicate whether the system was active, or when workers moved the line. In an interview this week, Jensen said it was not active at the time.
The development opened in August 2006 with dorm rooms, food shops and academic space.
ASU first hired its own full-time inspectors in 1999; Gallagher was one of them.
Prior to that, inspections fell to the university’s plumbing, air conditioning and other facility shops. However, construction firms ASU hired often brought in their own inspectors.
Jim Gibbs, the university’s fire marshal, said that practice worried him and he pushed to bring inspections within ASU.
But the current hierarchy, which places inspectors within the capital programs department, could create a conflict, Gibbs said. “It doesn’t have to be, but it can be,” he said.
Last year, Gibbs’ office became an independent department for environmental health and safety.
He said Gallagher and Thomas Lundberg, another construction inspector, met with him to ask about moving their office into environmental health and safety. Gibbs said other university inspectors also have sought to join his department.
Brixen and Jensen said the capital programs department has never considered removing its inspectors.
At the University of Minnesota, inspectors are in a different part of the administration from construction managers.
“They need to be separate to maintain that third-party, regulatory arm. It’s pretty hard to be regulatory when your boss is pushing project completion,” said Merwyn Larson, a University of Minnesota building official.
The University of Arizona is structured much like ASU, with inspectors and construction managers reporting to the same boss. Bob Smith, UA’s director of facility design and construction, said the two work closely together to complete safe buildings that are also on time and budget.
While both project managers and inspectors report to Jensen, he said one does not circumvent the other.
“Ultimately, both of these are separate and equal as well,” Jensen said.
State Fire Marshal Phil Mele is looking at that process as he reviews how all of Arizona’s public universities inspect construction.
The review stems from Mele’s investigation of the ASU Memorial Union fire in November, which burned two floors. Mele said he has concerns with some inspections done on building renovations.
“Everything had been inspected and approved, and yet we still had some questions about how the (air conditioning) operated and that sort of stuff,” Mele said.
He said he would like to create a single construction inspection process for all three of Arizona’s public universities. That is particularly important now, as private developers pay for buildings on state land that public universities will use.
He also wants to ensure construction firms are not choosing and paying for their own outside inspections.
Besides the fire marshal, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is the only agency outside ASU with jurisdiction over university construction sites.
OSHA inspectors have visited ASU just twice in the past 10 years, the agency’s inspection data show.
“Universities are not your high-hazard type of industry and so it doesn’t get the attention that maybe other industries would,” said Darin Perkins, health and safety director for the Industrial Commission of Arizona, which conducts workplace inspections for OSHA.
OSHA, however, inspected Northern Arizona University eight times, levying $100,000 in fines for asbestos violations, data show. UA has had seven inspections and $7,500 in fines.
The construction industry is Arizona’s most dangerous and, therefore, receives the most attention, Perkins said.
But not construction on university campuses.
“Universities, frankly, fall at the lower end of the list,” Perkins said.