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In a sign of the intensifying political turmoil surrounding the investigation of the Interstate 35W bridge collapse, Congress will publicly question the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) next month about its investigation, including the agency's refusal to hold a hearing of its own.
An aide to Rep. Jim Oberstar said Thursday that the Minnesota Democrat will use a previously scheduled hearing about the Safety Board's budget as a forum to focus on the investigation.
Oberstar "will be asking a number of questions about the NTSB's operations, including the NTSB's vote not to hold a public hearing," said Jim Schadl, Oberstar's spokesman.
The hearing is scheduled for April 23 before the House aviation subcommittee, which Oberstar heads as chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Oberstar's decision follows a week of increasing acrimony over how the NTSB is investigating the bridge collapse, and its decision not to hold public hearings.
Its own board split on partisan lines on the issue. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., called this week for public hearings, and in documents released Wednesday, the NTSB defended its decision, saying hearings would unduly delay the investigation.
In January, Oberstar publicly chided NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker for making public comments about the investigation that dismissed corrosion and poor maintenance as possible causes for the Aug. 1 bridge collapse. At that time, Oberstar asked Rosenker to hold a public hearing, partly to show that the investigation was unbiased and thorough.
But last week, Rosenker voted against the possibility. The NTSB decided that a public hearing would delay the conclusion of its investigation and possibly ruin its working relationship with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which so far has been a party to the investigation.
An NTSB staff report that urged board members to vote no on a public hearing said, "it has already taken significant negotiations to keep MnDOT and its ... technical consultants within our investigation."
Late Thursday, Bob McFarlin, MnDOT's acting commissioner, said the NTSB memo appears to reflect a "misunderstanding" about its relationship with state inspectors.
"We've had a very good relationship with the NTSB and have been very cooperative in every way we can think of. So we're baffled by the language in that memo," he said. "We have always maintained ... that the NTSB is in charge of the investigation, and we've cooperated in that fashion."
NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said Thursday that the agency has no comment on Oberstar's plans for the April hearing.
Internally, documents show that NTSB staff members were aware that a decision not to hold a public hearing would likely stir a political backlash. According to an internal NTSB memo written Feb. 25, NTSB managing director Joseph Osterman was "convinced" that not holding a hearing would motivate some "political, public interest groups and individuals" to become more vocal and critical of the NTSB.
Victims' lawyers outraged
In the Twin Cities on Thursday, lawyers for bridge-collapse victims continued to voice outrage over what they consider the narrow scope the NTSB appears to have taken in its investigation.
Osterman's memo and other internal staff correspondence released by the NTSB Wednesday reiterated that the emphasis of the investigation is on undersized gusset plates and construction loads on the bridge when it collapsed.
"The suggestion that the issue regarding the I-35W Bridge was design and the design process, rather than corrosion or some other degradation and the systems in place to identify those issues will fly in the face of many critics," Osterman wrote. "However, the outcome of our investigation appears to be clear, so showing our cards at a public hearing or in the final report is simply a matter of timing."
Phil Sieff, a Minneapolis lawyer who is part of a consortium representing 96 victims on a no-compensation basis, said a prominent engineering firm from New York City will prove that the collapse was not a case of underdesigned gusset plates or flawed design.
The firm, Thornton-Tomasetti, which did extensive engineering work in connection with the cleanup and forensic review of the 9/11 attacks, has been retained as a consultant for the victim's group and has been doing its own investigation, Sieff said.
He said if the NTSB is convinced it knows what caused the collapse, it should close the case and give the victims' legal team access to all physical evidence. The NTSB has blocked access to outside parties since the investigation began. "We have questions about any investigation that continues to hide behind a cloak of secrecy," Sieff said.
Jim Schwebel, who is representing another group of victims, said it's astonishing for the NTSB to continue saying maintenance was not a problem. He said the federal investigation is nothing more than a political smokescreen for politicians to dodge and deny the issue of crumbling infrastructure in America.
Tony Kennedy •612-673-4213 Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753