From a distance, Chuck Prater’s 35-foot power boat appears to be a picture of perfection. The decks and hull gleam, and the canvas sheltering the deck is a bright blue.
That showroom appearance is the product of some 40 hours Prater has devoted to washing, polishing and buffing his vessel’s fiberglass in the last two weeks.
But a closer look shows the boat’s finish is blemished by a random pattern of pinhead-sized rust stains and dark grit between the raised pattern on the nonslip walking surfaces. The blue canvas is embedded with a gray dust.
“I worked for days cleaning up my boat, and I come back down here the next day, and I find this,” said Prater gesturing toward the rash of rust spots covering his vessel.
For Prater and nearly two-dozen boat owners whose vessels are moored in the shadow of the Murray Morgan Bridge over the Thea Foss Waterway, that rash is the result of what they say is careless work by contractors finishing up the 100-year-old lift bridge’s $51 million reconstruction.
Contractors pressure washing, welding and working on the bridge above have apparently rained a cloud of metal filings, paint, rivets, bolts and other debris on the boats below. When the bridge was undergoing its early reconstruction work, the problem was not bad because contractors had shrouded the old steel bridge in plastic. But when that plastic cocoon was removed, and work continued as the project was being finished, the debris began falling.
Although no one has been injured, boat owners point to holes in the metal roofs of the sheds that shelter some of the boats. Those holes were the result of rivets and large bolts falling from the bridge above, said boat owner Jason Brinar.
But most damaging, say boat owners has been the periodic rain of small metal shavings and particles that fall from the structure.
Boat owner Tom Pitzer has collected plastic bags full of those metal particles and shavings to show insurance adjusters.
Those miniscule particles fall with enough velocity that they become lodged in the boats’ paint or gelcoat making them almost impossible to remove.
Wash or wipe them off, and a bit of metal remains embedded that begins to rust again as soon as the surface gets moist. And the grit from sandblasting the bridge tends to settle between the raised bumps of the nonskid surfaces, making its removal an arduous task.
“What that requires is someone with a toothbrush,” said boat owner Prater. “That’s hours and hours of work on a 35-foot boat.”
Prater said he’s complained several times to the bridge project’s general contractor, PCL Constructors, who promise to halt the debris-generating work or collect the debris before it falls from the bridge, but he’s only seen a temporary respite.
PCL has notified its insurance company and those of its subcontractors. One insurance adjuster visited the marina two weeks ago, but he apparently has been replaced by another adjuster with more expertise in marine matters.
Brinar said one insurance company employee has told him that getting a check to cover the damages is likely to take months because the subcontractors are trying to determine who caused the damage.
PCL officials did not return a request for comment by early Tuesday evening.
A score of boat owners have thus far filed claims for damage, but managers at the Foss Harbor Marina say they expect as many as 50 may eventually make claims. The marina itself is negotiating with the construction company for cleanup of its property.
Boat owners say they’ve been told repairing the damage may require sanding down the areas affected to remove the metal and recoating those surfaces. That process won’t be inexpensive. Brinar said he’s seen estimates ranging from $5,000 for a smaller vessel to nearly $40,000 for a large yacht.
The City of Tacoma’s bridge project engineer Tom Rutherford said he’s met with boat owners, PCL, subcontractors, the Department of Ecology, Citizens for a Healthy Bay and the marina owners in an attempt to address the problem and get those who suffered damages compensated.
Rutherford said PCL has taken steps to stop debris from falling. But some will likely escape the measures taken to catch them, he said.
“We’ve removed some 240 rivets,” he said. “We’ve caught all but seven.”
“We told the general contractor that we expect them to act quickly. We expect them to take responsibility and settle their issues with their subcontractors later,” he said.John Gillie: 253-597-8663