Yukon government strikes back on airport boondoggle

After first refusing to give information about problems with recent construction at the Whitehorse airport, the Yukon government is now speaking out - and is blaming the contractor.

After first refusing to give information about problems with recent construction at the Whitehorse airport, the Yukon government is now speaking out – and is blaming the contractor.

Paul Murchison, director of the transportation engineering branch at the Department of Highways and Public Works, said concrete poured by Norcope Construction Group “doesn’t have the strength or durability that’s specified.”

He said Norcope is now in default of its contract.

Earlier this week, Norcope president Doug Gonder spoke to the News about the $3.5-million contract his company was awarded to replace about 250 apron panels at the airport in the summer of 2014. The apron is the area where planes nose up to the airport after landing.

Gonder claims the project had major problems right from the start, because it was built on seasonal frost that thaws and freezes, causing the ground to rise and fall throughout the year. He said the concrete started to sink as soon as it was poured.

According to Gonder, the government knew about the problems and chose not to reinforce the construction, and now the concrete is cracking from the seasonal shift.

He blames the government for trying to “cheat and cut corners” on the project.

But Murchison said that’s not what happened.

He admits there was one area of the project with “frost-susceptible soil” that engineers hadn’t expected.

“When construction started, there was some settlement,” he said. “It was enough that we needed to take a look at it and make sure that there weren’t going to be problems.”

Murchison said that area was reinforced with a concrete mud slab.

But he maintains that the apron panels were designed to withstand seasonal movement without cracking.

“The soil conditions don’t have anything to do with the problems with the panels.”

Instead, Murchison blames the contractor for not building the panels properly.

He compared pouring concrete to making a cake. He said the ingredients have to be mixed properly and it has to be allowed to cure, the way a cake needs time to bake. “You have to follow very strict steps to get that concrete to be exactly what is specified at the end.” He said Norcope didn’t follow those steps properly.

Gonder denies any wrongdoing. He said the project would have been stopped partway through if his company’s work had been deficient.

“They would never allow me to continue and pour without a specification of that concrete being rectified.”

Gonder said he commissioned an independent engineering report last summer that proves the problems were caused by seasonal shift. The News has not yet seen this report.

When asked why the work wasn’t stopped and fixed during construction, Murchison said that “problems don’t always become clear immediately.”

But one thing Murchison and Gonder agree on is that there are now major problems with the entire project.

Murchison said the previous panels lasted for 30 years, but cracks have already appeared in the new panels since they were completed just over a year ago.

“The panels will deteriorate and they’ll deteriorate more quickly than expected.”

He said the government declared Norcope in default of its contract in August 2015, and is now dealing with the bonding company that holds a nearly $1.8-million performance bond from Norcope.

He said the bonding company is assessing the situation independently, and will decide whether the contractor is liable for repairs to the panels. He is expecting to hear from the bonding company in “the next couple of weeks.”

Gonder has a letter from the government stating that Norcope is not liable for cracks “shown to be caused by differential settlement.”

Murchison said the cost of the fix will depend on whether the apron panels can be repaired, or whether the project needs to be completely redone. That is yet to be determined.

He said the performance bond could cover the cost of repairs, but not the full cost of replacing the panels.

Still, he didn’t call the construction a failure.

“I don’t call it a failed project,” he said. “We have a substantially complete project that’s functioning. But it has issues.”

He added that the apron panel problems have no impact on aircraft safety.

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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