A Death Foretold: Boston’s Big Dig Claims a Life

by Joe Auciello / August 2006 issue of Socialist Action

BOSTON—Late in the evening of July 10, Angel Del Valle and his wife Milena drove into the city, intending to pick up a relative at Logan International Airport. They never arrived.

As the couple entered the Interstate 90 Connector tunnel leading to the airport, 10 concrete slabs, weighing 22 tons, dislodged and fell from the ceiling, crushing the Buick sedan below. Milena Del Valle, 38, a restaurant worker and immigrant from Costa Rica, was killed instantly; miraculously, her husband escaped with only minor injuries.

These tunnels, opened in 2003 as part of the $14.6 billion“Big Dig” project, were designed to ease and improve traffic flow in Boston. Upon completion, and with much fanfare, the tunnels were pronounced ready and safe.

Though construction problems on the project had surfaced almost immediately, there was no hint of danger. Mass Turnpike officials had repeatedly assured the public that the tunnels were solid and secure.

For the people of Boston, then, Ms. Del Valle’s needless death prompted shock, fear, and outrage. For the political elite of Boston, though, the tunnel tragedy prompted photo opportunities, television coverage, and a scramble for position.

Governor Mitt Romney, an all-but-announced Republican candidate for president in 2008, gained increased authority when the state legislature granted him power to oversee the inspection and rebuilding of the tunnels.

The attorney general, a Democratic candidate for governor, lagging in the polls, publicly threatened a criminal investigation but behind the scenes, according to a U.S. attorney, maneuvered to shield the contractor, the large and powerful firm of Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, from all but minimal expenses.

Meanwhile, the question remains: Why did Ms. Del Valle have to die? The technical answer concerns bolts and epoxy improperly applied in the project. The real answer concerns politics as it is typically applied in the Commonwealth.

On the state level, years of Republican-governor budget cuts and blind faith in big business severely reduced the number of engineers capable of overseeing the work to the degree necessary to insure safety. Further, the Democratic-majority legislature appointed one of its own, a jovial fellow with no particular experience who had just lost an election and needed a job, to the $233,000 position of chairman of the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority.

The result is that—with little capable, independent inspection—the company hired to build the Big Dig was also left to supervise and approve the quality of its own work. And their goal was profit first, safety later.

Nonetheless, warning bells were struck, if anyone in authority had wanted to hear them. On the ground, at the job site, workers repeatedly tried to notify their bosses—with no results. When tests revealed that the bolt fixtures were faulty, workers sent the results to the builder but got no response.
Test results were then sent to the lead management contractor, Bechtel, and the Turnpike Authority, again with no response. In fact, Big Dig officials cancelled laboratory tests that would have assessed the safety of the construction. Workers’ concerns were simply ignored.

Project managers who suggested using lighter, and safer, material were rebuffed because these panels would have been more expensive to install. In short, safety measures cost money, and everyone who could have ensured a safer construction project put business interests, cash interests, first.

Only now has the extent of systemic failure been made public. Tests conducted since Milena Del Valle’s death show that almost all of the 1150 bolts inside the connector tunnel are faulty, and sections of the Big Dig tunnels and ramps have been closed indefinitely. Since the accident, officials responsible for the building project have declined comment.

At his wife’s memorial service, Angel Del Valle blamed no one and thanked his friends, relatives, and co-workers for their support. He was, he said, “struggling to accept God’s plan.”

But the death of Milena Del Valle is the work of man, or more accurately—management—not God. If her demise was not planned, neither was it accidental. Corporate greed and political indifference combined to make an accident certain and a death likely. It was the foreseeable consequence of businessmen and their politicians who worshipped money above all else.

Socialists have long criticized capitalism for placing profits before people. The broken concrete of ceiling slabs and the broken bones of Milena Del Valle that formed a blood-stained heap on I-90 showed the real cost of “doing business” when corporate profit is god.

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