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Metro’s structural inspections could not be trusted for years, culminating in falling metal, concrete at Rhode Island Avenue, IG finds

The audit found 49 times over three years where the annual inspection reports for Rhode Island Avenue contained the exact wording as the prior year’s reports. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

Metro crews copied and pasted language from prior years’ structural inspection reports for the Rhode Island Avenue station and in other instances skipped hard-to-reach areas, culminating in a steel beam and concrete chunks falling from the ceiling in 2016, the agency’s inspector general concluded in a report released Thursday.

No one was injured, but the Rhode Island Avenue and Brookland stations will be shut down for 45 days starting July 21 to permanently address the structural failures that came to light when debris tumbled from the station’s ceiling Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, 2016.

Read the OIG report here

The audit from the Office of the Inspector General comes more than a year after Metro abruptly fired a third of its track inspection department for widespread record fabrication that the agency said contributed to a derailment near East Falls Church in summer 2016. And it raises new questions about the agency’s ability to ensure the safety and reliability of the system.

The audit found 49 times over three years in which the annual inspection reports for Rhode Island Avenue contained identical wording to prior years, the IG concluded in its year-long review. In 29 of those cases, the inspector general could not determine what Metro crews had inspected, while in 20 other cases, inspectors simply said nothing had changed since the prior year’s inspection, according to the report.

The findings, reflected in three annual reports examining a single station, suggest broader problems within Metro’s structural inspection department, which is under scrutiny by the IG’s investigative unit following the audit. Metro Inspector General Geoffrey Cherrington declined to comment on the audit, deferring to the report.

“It suggests, with respect to the workforce, a culture of mediocrity has set in at Metro and has been tolerated for way too long,” Rep. Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.) said. “I would hope that if Mr. Wiedefeld finds corroborating evidence that people falsified or outright fabricated inspection reports, the same accountability measure will be applied to them that was applied in the previous case.”

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld defended the agency’s inspection practices, saying that the situation differed from the problems within the track inspection department. But he declined to elaborate, pending an official response to the IG it plans to submit by June 1.

After falling concrete, Rhode Island station closed

Wiedefeld said that in some cases, conditions truly are the same from one inspection to the next, while in other cases, the evaluations do reflect changes to conditions.

At least one of the fired track inspectors had made a similar argument — that the wording was the same because conditions did not change — but Metro found he had falsified reports.

“It’s a different situation,” Wiedefeld said when pressed on his defense. “It’s a different situation because we reviewed it differently. We looked at the detail, and we had different conditions.”

The audit also said a 2015 inspection noted a fracture in the deck at Rhode Island Avenue, where concrete pieces later fell, but a follow-up assessment in 2016 omitted the finding, suggesting Metro did not act on the problem. An agency spokesman said the language that was purported to be missing was actually included in another section of the report. The IG said late Thursday that it reviewed the audit as recently as Thursday morning and it stands fully behind its findings.

The audit further elaborates that Metro did not have procedures in place to identify the weathered bolts, which are hidden from view, that caused a steel beam to fall. And when it patched the problem, the temporary wooden framework remained in place a year and a half later, the report says.

From 2017: Metro’s Office of Inspector General knew about falsified inspections nearly two years ago. Here’s the report.

“Without comprehensive inspections, incidents may continue to occur,” the audit said. “Incomplete inspection reporting may result in deficiencies not being addressed. If permanent repairs are not completed timely, the temporary repair may fail. These factors, in turn, may compromise the safety of passengers, [Metro] employees, and contractors.”

The audit said structural inspectors did not evaluate areas that were hard to see or access, apparently because they were not required to.

Metro said the agency is in the process of developing a structural inspections manual that will ensure those areas are evaluated, and the project is expected to be completed in summer 2019.

“This level of inspection may not have been required when Metro’s infrastructure was younger. However, as OIG noted, ‘as the infrastructure ages, additional inspection techniques need to be deployed,’ ” Metro spokesman Dan Stessel said. “We concur.”

The findings are at least the third report in recent years to raise alarm about the quality of Metro’s structural inspections, and they reinforce the perception of a culture of lax safety oversight that has plagued the agency as its infrastructure began to deteriorate.

“That’s a culture issue,” Metro Board member Corbett A. Price said after Thursday’s board meeting. “You have to fracture the culture.”

Metro’s inspector general had previously discovered abuses in structural inspections, including copying and pasting of prior report language, dating back to 2008. The quality control unit created by Wiedefeld found problems within the department and issued a set of actions aimed at eliminating them, including the finding that “Inspection report remarks were being cut and pasted.” In contrast to the IG report, however, the quality control unit’s evaluation notes “several comments” were the same as prior inspection reports.

In light of the latest findings, the agency was asked whether any inspections conducted by its workers could be trusted.

“Metro [has] implemented new processes in place that ensure inspections are being conducted properly, including measures to prevent shortcuts,” Stessel said. “Since then, we have reinspected all structures using the new controls, and are confident we have good information.”

One-third of Metro’s track inspection department has been fired for falsifying records, Wiedefeld confirms

Wiedefeld credited his quality control unit for highlighting some of the same problems in the agency’s structural inspections in a June 2017 report.

“We know we’ve had issues there, and we’re going to correct them,” he said.

Board Chairman Jack Evans remarked on the similarity of the IG’s findings to the abuses that led to the firings of track inspectors, but he promised the agency would make changes.

“This is the culture of Metro that was here when I got here and was here when Paul Wiedefeld got here,” he said. “You will not have that going forward because . . . we are rebuilding all of these areas so that inspections will be done and this system will run the way it’s supposed to. This is left over, again, from the past.”

The new report also is the third time in recent weeks that officials have raised concerns about concrete structures related to Metro stations. Late last month, officials in charge of construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line acknowledged there were defects in more than 1,700 concrete panels being installed for the project and that a criminal probe into the manufacturer was underway.

Though construction of the Silver Line is managed by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the inspector general said it is investigating any potential problems involving Metro and the same contractor.

This week, Metro announced it would embark on a three-year, 20-station program to rebuild its outdoor platforms, including a 98-day rail service shutdown of the Blue and Yellow Lines south of Reagan National Airport. ­Metro says the infrastructure is aging and in need of replacement.

The audit recommends six urgent changes for the agency’s structural inspection department. Each of the six issues is assessed to have a risk rating of “high,” meaning it is essential to the agency’s objectives and is aimed at eliminating the “loss of material assets, reputation, critical financial information or ability to comply with critical laws, policies or procedures.”

The agency must create policies that ensure areas that are hard to see and reach are inspected, and that the area of concern at Rhode Island Avenue — the zone between the escalator and platform structure — is inspected by Metro crews. It also must create procedures that mandate prior years’ inspections are compared to current ones for accuracy and inspection findings are followed up on and addressed. More specific to Rhode Island, the audit requires Metro to inspect the temporary repairs to ensure ongoing safety until permanent ones are made — and to repair the structure.

Metro accepted all the recommendations.

Despite the inspector general’s findings, however, Metro said it does not see a need to fire workers, as in the case of the track inspectors.

“The OIG audit identifies opportunities to further strengthen the inspection and repair process. It does not identify failures with individual employees,” Stessel said. “Metro has addressed the recommendations made by OIG in its management response, and through our own [quality control] process that was already underway.”

Wiedefeld said Metro has found no wrongdoing on the part of employees.

“We have not, and the OIG, if they find anything, we will react to it,” he said.