Big Dig firm to pay state, city $16m

By Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / December 18, 2008
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State prosecutors have agreed to drop a manslaughter charge against Powers Fasteners Inc., the only company to face state criminal charges in connection with the fatal collapse of a section of Big Dig tunnel, after the New York epoxy vendor agreed to pay $16 million to the state and city, Attorney General Martha Coakley said yesterday.

Under the terms of the settlement, the company also agreed to discontinue selling its line of fast-drying epoxy, the kind that was implicated in the ceiling collapse that killed Milena Del Valle, 38, of Jamaica Plain in July 2006.

The company is also required to take other steps that Coakley said are designed to prevent the kind of accident that killed Del Valle, including the recall of all of its fast-setting epoxy now in the field and sending a warning of such dangers to all past users of the product. Further, Powers agreed to conduct no business with state and local governments until Jan. 1, 2012.

"This is a very good settlement for the Commonwealth and the Del Valle family," Coakley said during a press conference. "It is fair and just for everyone."

Coakley said Milena Del Valle's husband, Angel, and her daughter, Raquel Ibarra Mora, had pressed the attorney general for measures in the settlement that would spare other families the heartache they endured.

"Their plea to me was they did not want this to happen to anyone else," Coakley said. "And we have kept that goal in mind. We think [the settlement] is the most effective way to resolve the concern of the family for public safety."

Jeffrey Denner, one of the family's lawyers, emphasized the family's approval of the settlement. Still, he said, the Del Valles remain scarred.

"Legally, it ends now, but emotionally it goes on forever for the family," Denner said.

If the company had been convicted of manslaughter, it would have faced a maximum fine of $1,000. But going to trial presented risks to the company. A conviction would have only strengthened the state's pending civil case against the company, while an acquittal would not have deterred the state from pursuing that case.

In a statement yesterday, Powers accepted its share of responsibility in the death of Del Valle. Martin E. Levin, one of Powers's lawyers, said in an interview that the settlement would allow the company to "move on and concentrate on its business in tough economic times."

One unexpected factor that played into the timing of the settlement was a very human one. Powers Fasteners is a family-run business based in Brewster, N.Y. that employs 240 workers. In the past year, Stephen Powers, one of the four brothers running the company, was killed in a motorcycle accident, and the 9-year-old son of Jeffrey Powers, another of the brothers, was badly injured when a car hit him, according to the company.

As a result, the Del Valle family, still mourning their own loss, had reached out in sympathy to the Powers family.

"We continue to feel for the Del Valle family, and we appreciate the supportive sentiments they have expressed to and for us," Jeffrey Powers said in a statement.

Yesterday's settlement marked a milestone in the state government's efforts to recoup losses for taxpayers because of shoddy work on the $15 billion Big Dig tunnel-and-highway project. So far, the state, in conjunction with the federal government, has recovered almost $550 million from contractors for the ceiling collapse, leaking tunnel walls, and other defects. The federal government helped pay for the project.

But unresolved claims remain against four smaller contractors, including Gannett Fleming Inc., the designer of the ceiling.

While the state has ended its pursuit of criminal convictions, the office of US Attorney Michael J. Sullivan in June charged Modern Continental Corp., the contractor that built the defective ceiling, with 49 counts of fraud in connection with accepting payment for work the government contends Modern Continental knew was substandard.

In addition, the Globe reported in May that Powers was the target of a federal criminal investigation, citing two lawyers who said they were briefed on the investigation.

Powers supplied the bolts and the epoxy, a sort of super glue, that contractors used to secure heavy concrete panels in the Interstate 90 Connector tunnel. The ceiling hung off rods attached to the bolts about 4 feet below the tunnel roof to create a crawl space used for ventilation.

Over time, the epoxy weakened and slowly slipped out of the tunnel roof. Contractors observed the creep of the bolts long before the tunnel was opened to traffic in 2003, and Powers representatives met with project officials on the site of that eventual accident to investigate the creep, but they never resolved the issue.

The largest settlement so far came from Bechtel Corp. and Parsons Brinckerhoff, the two international corporations that formed a joint venture to manage the design and construction of the project. They, along with several smaller design firms, agreed to pay $458 million in a settlement announced in January.

Last year, Aggregate Industries paid $50 million for its role in providing 5,700 truckloads of substandard concrete, material not implicated in the ceiling collapse.

Modern Continental, which earned $3.2 billion on the project but is now in bankruptcy, agreed to pay $26 million last month to settled civil claims against it.

All the companies implicated in the ceiling collapse, plus the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority, which oversaw the construction of the Big Dig, have agreed to pay $28 million for claims brought by the Del Valle family. Powers, which has agreed to pay the family $6 million, was the first company to settle with the Del Valles.

Most of the money received by the state government goes into a trust fund to help pay for future maintenance of the Big Dig.

Milena Del Valle was a passenger in a car driven by her husband en route to Logan International Airport when the ceiling collapsed near the eastbound entrance to the Ted Williams tunnel. The collapse prompted the closing of portions of the Big Dig tunnels for months, and forced the resignation of Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello.

Powers was indicted on state manslaughter charges in August 2007, after negotiations for a settlement broke down. At the time, Powers had offered $8 million to settle the claims.

Asked yesterday whether the Powers settlement ends the Big Dig legal wrangle for good, Coakley said: "I feel very comfortable, and I look forward to putting a lot of our assistant attorneys general to work on other matters."

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at

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