Lawmakers have warned of a loss in confidence in the government after 21 employees at a government contractor were arrested for allegedly faking concrete test results at the multibillion Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge megaproject.

“This has created a crisis of trust in the government’s ability to monitor and ensure the credibility of large-scale construction projects,” pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan said Wednesday.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridg
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK.

The remarks came after the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) arrested 21 employees – two senior executives, 14 laboratory technicians and five laboratory assistants – at a government contractor on Tuesday.

A series of malpractice

The contractor had been working with the Civil and Engineering Development Department since January 2013 to conduct compression tests on concrete samples for the mega bridge, the ICAC said. The samples were required to pass the tests within a period of time.

The ICAC suspected that a number of site laboratory technicians had tampered with the testing machines in order to cover up irregularities when some of the tests were not conducted within the required time frame.

“[S]ome of the laboratory staff might have replaced the concrete samples by using a metal calibration cylinder and/or high strength concrete cubes to falsify the tests, so that the tests would appear to have been conducted properly,” it said.

The watchdog suspected that the malpractice began in early 2015.

It further alleged that two senior laboratory technicians certified the false test reports and possibly received bribes for allowing the reports to be submitted to the authorities.

Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge
Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge. File Photo: GovHK.

The engineering department referred a complaint to the ICAC after a staff member noticed anomalies in the contractor’s reports in mid-2016.

‘Unthinkable consequences’

Calling the mass arrests a “scandal in the engineering sector,” pro-Beijing lawmaker and engineer Ben Chan Han-pan said the incident would damage public confidence in the city’s construction projects and the testing and certification industry.

The government and the ICAC did not disclose details of the contractor, but Chan said the contractor is a favourite of the government and is also in charge of inspection work for the Express Rail Link megaproject.

Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan said the Hong Kong section of the bridge would “very likely” be affected by the instance of malpractice. He suggested taking down the entire Hong Kong Link Road if widespread safety issues were identified.

“The bridge is located in the middle of the sea and will have to withstand strong winds. Many cars will be using the bridge. If it cracked and collapsed, the consequences would be unthinkable,” Wan said.

Ben Chan hang-pan
Ben Chan hang-pan. Photo: HKFP/Catherine Lai.

Visual inspection

In response, a government spokesperson said visual inspections were conducted on the structures on Tuesday. “[Inspectors] confirmed that the structures were in sound condition and no abnormalities – such as structural cracks – were identified,” it said.

“Until now, all testing results have shown that all tested structures are in compliance with the required standard.”

But Ray Chan questioned the effectiveness of visual inspections. “Saying that you visually inspected the structures would worry people even more,” he said. “Can you really tell just by looking at the structures that companies have used inferior materials?”

Permanent Secretary for Development Hon Chi-keung admitted that visual inspections “cannot guarantee 1oo per cent safety,” but said they are a feasible solution given the time constraint.

See also: Gov’t ‘regrets’ fatalities at Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge project, as workers demand halt to ‘murders’

The government will be checking the strength of concrete at the structures in the coming weeks.

The Hong Kong Link Road of the megabridge was finally connected last Tuesday. The government expects to complete the Hong Kong section of the project by the end of the year.

SMALL hong kong free press hkfp logo

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.