By Scott North and Lukas Velush <I>Herald Writers</I>
Washington State Ferries provided an incomplete picture of problems on its oldest vessels when it briefed state lawmakers late last month about detailed inspections of the 80-year-old hulls.
Ferry officials told the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee in an Oct. 30 report that the state’s four Steel Electric-class ferries are “generally considered to be in good condition.”
They now acknowledge finding two dozen more cracks in the aging steel than they told lawmakers about. Corrosion of hull plates also is more widespread than reported, and severe enough that more unplanned repairs appear likely for two of the vessels, the Quinault and Klickitat, ferry officials said.
Some information about the Steel Electrics’ problems was purposely omitted from the report to lawmakers, state officials said in interviews. Other troubles have been discovered recently as part of ongoing work to bring the vessels into compliance with Coast Guard orders for stepped up inspection and maintenance.
“This is disturbing to me that the hulls are in worse shape than what they told me about,” said state Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, chairwoman of the senate’s transportation committee. “I’m really disturbed about that if that’s accurate. Don’t worry, I’ll ask the questions.”
Ferry officials didn’t selectively chose information, they instead focused on presenting the most-pertinent details about ongoing ferry repair efforts, said Marta Coursey, communications director for the ferry system.
The Steel Electric-class vessels are the oldest ferries operating on salt water in the nation. A consultant hired to inspect the ferries submitted reports identifying 184 fractures in the four vessels’ steel hulls, documents show. Ferry officials told lawmakers about 160 of those problems. They all document places where the metal in the hulls’ plating or supporting frame has weakened or been damaged over time.
The 24 additional fractures were omitted from the ferry system’s report to lawmakers because they were discovered using additional inspection measures that at the time had been performed on only one of the vessels, the Illahee, said Dave Nye, a ferry system preservation engineer.
The report to lawmakers attempted to summarize a large amount of technical information in an understandable way, he said.
The report to lawmakers didn’t hint that ferry officials for weeks believed hull inspections had identified 31 problems on the boats serious enough that the Steel Electrics could have been forced out of service until repaired to the Coast Guard’s satisfaction.
The problem turned out to be improper application of federal regulations, and it went undiscovered until late September, documents show.
The Herald learned of the earlier internal concerns when it asked the ferry system for copies of the hull-inspection reports.
Coursey said the ferry system mistakenly provided the newspaper with draft reports that described the problems as more serious than they ultimately were classified. The reports initially provided the newspaper aren’t marked “draft.”
The consultant hired by the ferry system to inspect the Steel Electrics confirmed errors were made in applying federal standards to problems found with the hulls, but not in their technical description.
Duncan McClure, president of International Inspection Inc., in Seattle, said his firm specializes in finding problems in ships.
It is up to others, in this case the ferry system and the Coast Guard, to ultimately determine what they mean to the vessel’s safety, he said.
“What we are trying to achieve here is (to provide) correct and relevant information for everybody and we are not infallible from making mistakes,” he said.
The ferry system is taking seriously problems found on the Steel Electrics and is making improvements, said Lt. Cmdr. Todd Howard, who oversees vessel inspections for the Coast Guard in Seattle. Repairs have made the ferries better now than they were just a few months ago, he said.
“I am confident that we’ve acted in good faith all along on this,” said Tim Browning, senior port engineer in charge of vessel preservation for the ferry system.
In its Oct. 30 report to lawmakers, ferry officials described the Quinault as in general being “in good condition throughout.”
On Thursday, a little more than two weeks later, Browning said work done by ferry system crews on the Quinault has turned up extensive corrosion of the 1927-vintage rivited steel plates still found deep in the vessel’s hull along the keel.
Although crews have been diligent in maintenance, corrosion pits have developed over time in the aging steel, Browning said.
“It was very difficult to see until you pulled the paint away where you would start doing work,” he said. Crews took advantage of downtime while the Quinault was in dry dock to remove paint and inspect the steel.
Repairing those problems likely will keep the Quinault in dry dock another month, and will be a “significant” expense, Browning said. He declined to speculate on how much.
The ferry system already has spent $1.2 million this year on repairs to the Quinault, and “it has gotten to the point where we are having to stop and look at the cost,” Browning said.
The ferry system has paid upwards of $4 million this year on repairs to the Steel Electrics. Much of that work was done on the Illahee, which has returned to service in the San Juan Islands.
The vessel is outfitted with two new stern tubes, the pipes that enclose the propeller shafts where they go through the hull. The new stern tubes were fabricated from modern steel, and replace the Illahee’s corroded cast-iron tubes. One of those tubes developed a 20-inch-long crack in July, allowing water to stream into the hull at five gallons a minute.
The Illahee’s new stern tubes are “way better than whatever she came out of the shipyard with,” the Coast Guard’s Howard said. The Quinault also has been fitted with new stern tubes, and the Klickitat likely will have to undergo a similar operation, ferry officials said.
The Klickitat remains in service on the challenging run between Keystone on Whidbey Island and Port Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Browning said each vessel is different, but corrosion similar to that found on the Quinault should be expected on the Klickitat.
“As prudent people we can only assume a pretty high likelihood that we are going to find something similar,” he said.
Meanwhile, ferry officials are mulling over the Nisqually’s fate. They project that $3.5 million in repairs may be necessary, and are considering the costs versus the benefits, Coursey said.
The decision must be made by December whether to seek a renewal of the Nisqually’s operating permit from the Coast Guard inspection, she added.
Coursey said ferry officials know time is running out for the Steel Electrics. They hope by January to present a plan for either building new boats or make-overs that could squeeze years more life from the vessels.
State Rep. Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, was assured by the governor that the Steel Electrics are safe. Like Haugen, she was present at the Joint Transportation Committee meeting at the end of October.
She said she was surprised that legislators were not told about the 24 additional cracks on the Illahee and that there was a substantial amount of corrosion on at least one of the vessels.
“If these (ferries) are in that bad of shape, we really need to get down to business and make some very serious decisions,” Kessler said.
She said she would “take the high road” when asked about ferry officials telling her that the ferries are in “good condition.”
“I would like to see the report,” she said. “We need to ask some tough questions.”
Haugen said the culture in the ferry department needs to change.
“What we’re trying to get is more transparency,” Haugen said. “We’ve done it with the rest of the transportation department. All you have to do is look at their gray notebook and you’ll find out more information than you’ll ever want to know. There isn’t the same transparency in the ferry department.”
Haugen and Kessler said shutting down the run is not an option, so the Steel Electrics need to be replaced or salvaged, and quickly.
“We can yak all day long about how many ferries we need, but in the end we need to make sure the ferries we do have are safe,” Kessler said.
Critics of the ferry system say it needs to be forced to replace the Steel Electrics.
“Here is a concept for Washington State Ferries to consider: tell the truth. Stop spinning the stories and solve the problem. Mothball these old rust buckets,” said Jed Powell, a Seattle attorney who represents the J.M. Martinac Shipbuilding Corp. of Tacoma. The boat builder has been so critical of the ferry system’s handling of its problems with the Steel Electrics that it filed a lawsuit in federal court. The litigation is now on hold.
“Has anyone in our government considered what will happen if we suffer the catastrophic loss of one of these ferries at sea?” Powell asked. “The civil liability would be staggering. And any criminal implications could go all the way to the top.”
Reporter Scott North: 425-339-3431 or email@example.com.