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Settlement reportedly near in I-90 tunnel ceiling collapse

Email|Print| Text size + By Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / January 17, 2008

The state attorney general's office is close to reaching a financial settlement with Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff in exchange for not seeking criminal charges in connection with the Interstate 90 tunnel ceiling collapse that killed a Jamaica Plain woman, say to two sources briefed on the negotiations.

Lawyers are scheduled to meet today to work out the final details, according to one of the sources. An agreement could be announced as early as next week, the other source said.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, which was paid more than $2 billion to manage the design and construction of the massive construction project, offered to pay the state more than $300 million last summer, but it has taken several months to hammer out an agreement.

In exchange for the payment, Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff would not face criminal charges in the I-90 tunnel ceiling collapse in 2006 that killed Milena Del Valle, and it would probably not be prohibited from receiving future government contracts, said one of the sources.

In addition to Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the settlement will probably involve firms that helped design the Big Dig, including Gannett Fleming, and Frederic R. Harris, the sources said.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general's office declined to comment on the negotiations.

Attorney General Martha Coakley had contended that Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff was criminally negligent in the tunnel ceiling collapse, but ruled out indicting the consortium unless settlement talks broke down.

She decided to seek a financial settlement rather than pressing criminal charges, since the maximum penalty against a corporation for manslaughter under state law is a $1,000 fine.

Only one firm has been indicted in the tunnel collapse, Powers Fasteners, the company that supplied epoxy for the bolts that held up the tunnel ceiling. Powers is accused of failing to adequately warn construction contractors of the dangers of using a fast-drying epoxy to secure the ceiling bolts.

Coakley and the National Transportation Safety Board said Powers should have spotted the problem when its officials were called to the tunnel during construction in 1999 to figure out why bolts were coming loose.

The company has pleaded not guilty and denies any responsibility for the accident.

On Dec. 18, a Suffolk Superior Court judge refused to dismiss the manslaughter charge against the company, based in Brewster, N.Y.

Powers Fasteners offered the state $8 million to avoid criminal charges.

But the attorney general's office was not satisfied, and a Suffolk grand jury indicted the firm on a charge of involuntary manslaughter last August.

Last month, Powers became the first of more than a dozen defendants to settle claims in a suit brought by Del Valle's family, offering the family $6 million.

Del Valle, 38, died July 10, 2006, when concrete panels fell from the I-90 connector ceiling, crushing the car she and her husband were driving in on the way to Logan Airport.

Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

Clarification: The engineering design company HNTB was reported to be involved in settlement talks with the state attorney general over the collapse of a section of the ceiling in the I-90 tunnel. HNTB, which was not involved with the design of that part of the tunnel, is engaged in global settlement talks about the project.

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