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Originally published March 19, 2009 at 12:40 PM | Page modified March 19, 2009 at 3:59 PM

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Supplier admits using sub-strength steel in Sound Transit light-rail columns

A supplier for Sound Transit's light-rail project admitted this afternoon in federal court that he used sub-strength steel in more than 100 columns used to support the tracks.

Seattle Times staff reporters

A supplier for Sound Transit's light-rail project admitted this afternoon in federal court that he used sub-strength steel in more than 100 columns used to support the tracks.

David Appleby, president of Appleby NW in Granite Falls, pleaded guilty to a single count of making and using false documents. He could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine when he is sentenced on July 10.

Earlier today, prosecutors charged Appleby with using steel in 154 columns that didn't meet the engineer's specification. The columns support elevated tracks. Each column is up to 12 feet wide and buried 90 feet below ground.

Appleby provided 150 casings — 1.5 million pounds of steel — now supporting light-rail columns, according to court documents. Appleby falsified 36 reports that were ultimately submitted to the Federal Transit Administration, which oversaw the light-rail project and provided Sound Transit $500 million toward its construction.

Appleby's defense attorney, Irwin Schwartz, said his client admitted to falsifying the reports: "People panic and they cover up," he said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Blackstone said Appleby confessed immediately and cooperated with the investigation.

Sound Transit officials said the trackway remains safe and can withstand a large earthquake, as designed.

Blackstone said Appleby initially didn't realize the steel he approved for use in the columns was not up to specification. But once he realized the mistake, he forged mill certificates to say the steel could withstand greater pressures, Blackstone said.

The suspect steel was used to build the half-inch-thick circular "casings" that shape part of the column foundations. It was used throughout four miles of elevated track in Tukwila, said transit spokesman Bruce Gray. Appleby was accused of forging mill certificates to say the steel could withstand greater pressures.

This problem does not affect more critical steel used in the thousands of rebar rods embedded lengthwise within the concrete, said Gray.

Three engineering studies confirmed the columns are solid, officials said.

"The system is safe to operate, and will operate as intended," Chief Executive Joni Earl said in a message this week to elected officials on Sound Transit's governing board.

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Sound Transit is trying to launch service July 3 from downtown Seattle to Tukwila, near International Boulevard South, followed by an extension to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport by Dec. 31, an overall 16-mile, $2.6 billion project.

Sound Transit's design used a conservative calculation for steel strength, to withstand 50,000 pounds per square inch, based on national highway standards. Appleby supplied steel rated for only 36,000 psi, the federal complaint says.

Even with the weaker steel, the columns will still meet seismic requirements, a Sound Transit engineering study says.

Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or mlindblom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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