Launch Slideshow

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Judgment Day

Judgment Day

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    Joe Ferrentino, attorney with Newmeyer & Dillon

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    Michael Turner, attorney with Kasdan Simonds

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    Judge David C. Velasquez

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    William Ingalsbe, attorney with Monteleone and McCrory

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    Concrete has deteriorated due to sulfate attack.

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    Left: Batchman Richard Bowman (left) talks with Tim Toland, president of National Ready Mixed Concrete Co., at its plant in Van Nuys, Calif.

Also, Kasdan Simonds' Vaughan hopes for a better way to move these cases through the court system. He advocates settling quickly. “You don't want all the money to go to the lawyers and the experts and not get the homes fixed. You also don't want to have a litigation process where you spend as much money fighting over the case as you do getting rid of it. They claimed $2.2 million for a matter that could have been settled for under $200,000. That is a very expensive process. It looks like it was designed by the Pentagon.”

Vaughan is also passionate about what he sees as the cause of the problem. “We're all under competitive price pressure,” he says. “My industry exists because there has been a significant decline in the quality of construction because of the constant pressure to save costs in materials and, more importantly, in labor. Despite all the puffing you see in every Sunday supplement about the wonderful new entry-level homes, the quality of those homes stinks.

“But consider the difference in cost between concrete that would be corrosion-resistant and fully satisfy the code requirements, and concrete that clearly doesn't,” Vaughn adds. “If suppliers don't resist those pressures and don't insist on delivering a quality product, they can wind up getting sucked into these things.”

For producers responding to future lawsuits, perhaps the least biased opinion comes from the insurance industry. Insurers want to avoid paying claims, but they have no stake in one strategy over another. CNA, National's insurer, apparently felt that a $3 million to $4 million fight was worth it for the long-term goal of discouraging unfounded lawsuits.

National Cement's Unmacht echoes that sentiment “You've got to look at the facts clearly and say, ‘is this a claim that we should deal with as responsible people, or is this a totally bogus thing where somebody's trying to get some money out of us,'” he says. “The facts didn't support the claim against us, and therefore you have to stand up and be counted. Otherwise you can't be a viable business.”

Author Steven H. Miller is a California-based freelance writer.


Sulfate Attack: A Breakdown

Sulfate attack is a breaking down of concrete caused by crystal formation in the concrete's natural microscopic voids. External sulfate attack—the kind alleged in most of the California lawsuits—results from sulfates in the soil becoming dissolved in groundwater and penetrating the concrete. The sulfates react chemically with free calcium hydroxide and tricalcium aluminate (commonly called C3A), normal products of portland cement hydration.

The reaction forms etringite (calcium sulphoaluminate) and gypsum (calcium sulfate) crystals, which take up more space than the separate chemicals that formed them. It is much like water crystallizing into ice and expanding. The growing etringite and gypsum crystals push against the sides of the void; when the crystals are big enough, the cement paste gets cracked. If this happens in enough of the voids, the concrete begins to crumble.

In concrete that suffers sulfate attack, certain symptoms would be observed happening together, although this interaction may only be observable with a microscope. A forming crystal pushes outward in all directions, so cracks would move outward from a central point; a crack with one wide end and one narrow end would not be typical. The cracks would join at 120-degree angles, as opposed to 90-degree angles, which is more typical of dry shrinkage.

The cracks typically have smooth edges, not stair-stepped edges. The voids would be filled with etringite, distributed in a connected way; isolated deposits of etringite are common in healthy concrete. Efflorescence occurs during sulfate attack, but it also occurs in healthy concrete, and by itself can't be considered a symptom of sulfate problems.