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$450m Big Dig accord expected

Deal would exempt consortium from state criminal charges in tunnel collapse

Email|Print| Text size + By Andrea Estes and Sean P. Murphy
Globe Staff / January 23, 2008

State and federal authorities are prepared to announce, perhaps as soon as today, a settlement of about $450 million with the firms that designed and managed the Big Dig, according to two sources who have been briefed on the negotiations, bringing closure to many of the legal battles over a project that has been marred by chronic leaks and a fatal ceiling collapse.

Under terms of the 50-page settlement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consortium that oversaw the Big Dig design and construction, will return $399 million to the state, and a number of smaller companies will pay about $50 million to Massachusetts, the sources said.

Both the US attorney in Boston, Michael Sullivan, and state Attorney General Martha Coakley have approved the deal at least in principle, one of the sources said. Spokeswomen for both declined comment last night.

The settlement would allow authorities to seek additional damages from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff in the event of a major failure in the project in the future - an incident that causes more than $50 million in damage, one of the sources said. The consortium's liability would be capped at $100 million in any future failure, and an arbitrator would have to determine that the consortium was at fault, according to the source.

But by signing the agreement, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff will avoid state criminal charges in the tunnel collapse. The other companies in the settlement had not been targets of criminal prosecution. In addition, Bechtel, whose business depends on government contracts around the country and the world, will not be barred from receiving future federal and state government contracts.

Some of the settlement money will be placed in a special trust fund and used to pay for Big Dig costs and repairs, according to one source. As a condition for approving the settlement, the US attorney's office wanted assurances that the money would not go into the state's general fund, one of the sources said. The federal government will receive some of the settlement money.

The settlement amount represents a major turnaround in financial recovery efforts for the state after years of frustration. As of 2003, it had recovered only $35,707 from Big Dig firms.

Since then, the job of trying to win settlements has been spearheaded by a retired probate court judge, Edward M. Ginsburg, former attorney general Thomas Reilly, and now Coakley, who appointed a special assistant attorney general, Paul Ware, to handle the criminal investigation into the tunnel ceiling collapse and the settlement talks.

Last year, Aggregate Industries paid a $50 million penalty to the state for its role in providing 5,700 truckloads of substandard concrete to the Big Dig - material that was not implicated in the ceiling collapse. By agreeing to pay, the company was able to continue its government work.

A lawsuit against Bechtel/ Parsons Brinckerhoff and other companies by the family of Milena Del Valle, who was killed in the July 2006 ceiling collapse in the Interstate 90 tunnel, is, on its face, unaffected by the state settlement.

Del Valle died after concrete panels weighing 26 tons fell from the I-90 connector tunnel ceiling on July 10, partially crushing the car she and her husband were riding to Logan Airport. The death further undermined public confidence in the trouble-plagued highway and tunnel project - and touched off multiple criminal and civil investigations.

It also sparked a political uproar, which ultimately forced the resignation of then-Massachusetts Turnpike Authority chairman Matthew J. Amorello. Former governor Mitt Romney reacted to the disaster by assuming control over the project and ordering immediate "stem to stern" inspections.

Brad Henry, one of the lawyers who represents the Del Valle family, said Bechtel's payment "certainly seems to be a substantial admission of liability. They're paying $75 million more than it cost to build the entire Gillette Stadium. That sends a strong message that Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff was aware that its conduct was in large part responsible for the collapse of that ceiling.

"It's odd that Bechtel is willing to pay hundreds of millions of dollars for the cost of broken concrete and state trooper overtime, but is unable or unwilling to try to repair the damage to the family of Milena Del Valle," he said.

Bechtel has declined to comment in the past on the Del Valle case.

So far only one of more than a dozen defendants has settled with the family. In December, Powers Fasteners Inc. of Brewster N.Y. agreed to pay the family $6 million. Powers, which provided the epoxy blamed in the collapse, is also the only company facing criminal charges after the attorney general's office charged it with one count of involuntary manslaughter in August. If convicted, Powers faces a fine of $1,000. The company, which pleaded not guilty, has denied responsibility for the fatal accident.

Because the maximum penalty for manslaughter is only $1,000, Coakley decided to seek a financial settlement from Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff rather than prosecute, though she held open the possibility of criminal charges if settlement talks broke down, legal sources have previously said.

In 2004, the Globe reported the O'Neill Tunnel was riddled with hundreds of leaks, allowing almost 2 million gallons a month into the tunnel system. Only 36,000 gallons a month had been anticipated. Crews are out almost nightly plugging leaks.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com. Sean Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com.

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