Washington County Faulty Bridge Investigation Transcripts Released

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FAYETTEVILLE (KFSM)- 5NEWS obtained transcripts Monday  (May 18) of interviews conducted during an investigation into faulty bridge construction in Washington County.

The two-week investigation was conducted by a three-person panel appointed by the Washington County Quorum Court. They presented their report on May 5 and concluded the work environment and lack of training at the Road Department contributed to the incorrect construction of the Harvey Dowell Bridge east of Fayetteville and the Stonewall Bridge west of Prairie Grove.

The report was compiled by Justice of the Peace Eva Madison, County Assessor Russell Hill and Carl Gales, a former engineer who served as a citizen adviser. The team interviewed Washington County Judge Marilyn Edwards, 16 current and former county employees, met with the structural engineer who prepared the plans, reviewed construction photos, work logs and engineering plans and visited the bridges.

According to transcripts of the panel’s interview with Edwards, Harvey Dowell and Stonewall were supposed to be built following engineer’s designs, which was out of the norm for the Road Department that most of the time built pre-engineered, precast bridges.

When she was asked whether the Road Department crews knew how to read bridge plans Edwards told the panel she assumed they knew what they were doing because they’d been building bridge for years.

“All I can do is go by the people that work for me, all I can do is go by what they tell me,” Edwards said. “Because if I didn’t think they were doing the job, or I couldn’t trust them, they wouldn’t be in that position.”

According to the transcripts, two Road Department workers told the panel there was no quality control or testing done during construction of the Harvey Dowell Bridge. Gales also told Edwards there were 12 or 13 instances where the Road Department didn’t follow engineer’s plans for the bridge.

“They deviated, used their old practices,” Gales said. “And it’s resulting into major repairs that are going to have to be made.”

Madison asked Edwards if at any point anyone in the Road Department discussed additional training.

“We are going to have to try to train, but no, we have not tried to send anyone to concrete school or to rebar school or to read blueprints,” Edwards said. “Every bit of this stuff that we talk about takes a lot of money.”

The panel also question Edwards about when she became aware of issues during the construction of the two bridges.

In the transcript, Madison said all the Justices of the Peace received a letter from George Braswell in November 2014 that stated shortcuts were being made during construction. Madison asked Edwards if she followed up with the Road Department superintendent or assistant superintendent.

“There had been so much going on. It had been an ugly, ugly election. And there were two or three people that had gotten caught up in some of the stuff, and I felt a lot of it was election rhetoric,” Edwards said. “Because that happens when you have a lot of stuff like that. So you assume that it’s just dirty politics, is what you assume.”

In December 2014, Braswell filed a lawsuit. The suit alleged deviation from design plans left the Stonewall Road and Harvey Dowell bridges “dangerously under supported,” adding the “structural integrity of each bridge has been significantly compromised.”

Madison asked the judge if there was any discussion with the Road Department about the information in the complaint.

“I don’t remember anything of that nature,” Edwards replied. “Like I said, there was so much going on, it’s hard to put it all together.

About four months after Braswell filed the lawsuit, the Road Department tore down the partially-constructed Stonewall Bridge and Edwards put the Harvey Dowell Bridge under a three-ton weight limit. Both those decisions were made after the Quorum Court watched a video on March 19, 2015 showing then-County Assessor Jeff Williams demonstrating the shortcuts that were taken during the construction of Stonewall. County officials, including County Attorney Steve Zega, said they’ve never seen the video prior to that meeting.