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Big quake and substandard steel threaten Metro Manila towers

The powerful earthquakes that rattled Metro Manila, Central Luzon, Eastern Visayas and Mindanao last week should serve as a serious reminder on the need to build disaster-resilient structures to prevent the unnecessary loss of lives, two incumbent senators and two former ones said.

Former senator Nikki Coseteng brought to the fore continued use of substandard steel bars, particularly in high-rise buildings and crucial government infrastructures such as airports and mass transport. She advocated for more stringent measures to be adopted by the government to ensure that all steel products in the country are safe to use.

Veteran lawmaker and current senatorial candidate Juan Ponce Enrile called for a more rigid building code and echoed calls made by Senators Panfilo Lacson and Koko Pimentel for stricter testing and labelling of construction products, namely cement and steel products, given that the Philippines lies on the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire”—a seismically active arc of volcanos and fault lines in the Pacific Basin.

“Considering that our country has suffered from an inexhaustible number of deadly typhoons, earthquakes, volcano eruptions and other natural calamities, it is imperative that our structures are sturdy and disasters resilient,” Lacson said.

Good news, bad news

The good news is that the Department of Trade and Industry has displayed good foresight by gradually moving to standardize the manufacture and labeling of quality steel reinforcing bars, particularly for high-rise buildings. Industry sources revealed that the DTI would implement the distinct embossing on each rebar of the steel grade of a product to properly identify its quality within the year.

This follows a law filed earlier this year by Congressman Scott Davies Lanete (House Bill 8871) seeking more stringent labeling, testing, enforcement and penalties, among others, for steel rebars.

The labeling, or “embossing” of grades which reflect the actual type of steel, is a welcome move, industry observers say, as well as much needed reforms reportedly in the works, namely “cyclic loading tests” for locally manufactured steel rebars, which calls for these to be subjected to repeated, fluctuating intensity stress tests; and minimal steel-grade requirements (grade 60) for rebars to be used in high-rise buildings and other major infrastructure.

The bad news is that the reforms may not be able to address the danger faced by the plethora of high-rise buildings that have risen, particularly in Metro Manila over the past ten years, when the “big one” hits.

Many of these buildings, direct beneficiaries of the property boom over the past ten years, including mushrooming government infrastructure such as airports and mass transport facilities, were built using substandard steel rebars sold using the color-coded labeling process.

A major controversy in the industry over the past decades have been steelmakers who market their supposedly tested and correctly-labeled rebars as grade 60 in strength when they are only grade 40.

Experts agree that such practices put into question the structural integrity of high rise edifices during times of a major earthquake. In other seismic-prone countries, the testing grades can be up to 80 to 100. The Philippine government has been slow to adopt this safety-driven process and has simply relied on using painted marks to identify rebar types over the past decade. This has been a source of fraud in the industry as the paint can be erased or painted with another color.

More alarmingly, a leading industry player that has stridently advocated for color-coding of rebars instead of embossing — and has been unloading thousands of these mis-labeled rebars in the market— recently claimed that it had built over 50 percent of the high rise buildings in Metro Manila during much of the same period.

Last week’s earthquakes measured 5.6 to 6.0 intensity (Richter scale) at the epicenters, respectively, and left at least 19 dead and more than 80 people injured. The terrible structural damage to buildings in Pampanga and the Visayas happened at only intensity 4. If an earthquake at intensity 8 hit Metro Manila, over half of the high-rise buildings in the metropolis would be flattened due to the substandard steel used in construction.

Mis-labeling of rebars

“Call this a signal from heaven, if you will, but these tremors simply stress the need to build better and safer structures. We should always think of safety first,” said Coseteng.

Enrile agreed, noting that the deadly impact of recent tremors should be a warning for future instances of stronger earthquakes especially in Metro Manila.

Referring to what officials of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology call the “Big One”, Enrile warned that buildings and other infrastructure might collapse, “definitely a deadly calamity.”

Meanwhile, a prominent newspaper columnist called for a serious post mortem of the damaged buildings in Pampanga and other provinces rocked by the quakes to see if there are any building code violations, and if the steel and concrete used are up to standard, “especially in high-rise buildings and major infrastructures such as the Clark International Airport.”

Coseteng, who testified last year at the Senate committee hearing chaired by Pimentel, cited independent studies and findings of the Association of Structural Engineers of the Philippines, which recommended that the government look closely into rampant cases of mis-testing, mis-labeling of steel rebars used for high-rise buildings as well as major infrastructures in the ‘Build, Build, Build’ program. 

The studies by ASEP also highlighted reports of smuggling and mis-declaration of steel billets imported into the country by local steel manufacturers.

“More stringent measures should be in place to ensure that all steel products in the country are safe to use,” Coseteng said, amid claims by the ASEP that substandard materials continue to proliferate in the market.

ASEP chairman Emilio Morales said the current testing processes for steel rebars by the DTI should be further strengthened and ramped up to international standards as these may not be safe to use in earthquake-prone areas like the Philippines.

But at Pimentel’s committee hearing, steelmakers defended themselves vigorously, maintain that their products had been tested and concerned government agencies likewise vouched that existing standards mandate the use of quality products for high-rise buildings.

Morales replied that the DTI should be more stringent than normal given the seismic location of the Philippines.

Raising the bar

“A simple question for the DTI and these steelmakers who market their steel rebars as grade 60 in strength when it is only grade 40, is this: are these supposedly tested and correctly-labeled products safe enough to use in high-rise structures during times of a major earthquake?” Morales asked. 

“In other countries, the testing grades can be up to 80 to 100: what’s preventing the DTI from implementing stricter testing process given that lives of people are at stake?” he said.

Morales said the DTI should do away with the process of using painted marks to identify rebar types.

Section 9 of the Philippine National Standard for steel bars used in concrete reinforcement (PNS 49) requires manufacturers to emboss identifying marks, bar size and grade on each steel bar. Color codes painted on the ends, however, can be used in lieu of an embossed grade number.

Coseteng claimed that local manufacturers were doing customers a disservice.

“Imported steel bars have proper markings. Local manufacturers do not put proper markings. Why is the grade of steel not embossed in some manufacturers’ steel bars as mandated by law?” Coseteng said.

“I’m just asking as a citizen. They should put proper marks, emboss it on their steel bars. Are they hiding something? They are hiding the grade of their steel bars,” she said.

Coseteng claimed that manufacturers had changed the composition of steel bars being sold in the domestic market.

“Did the steel manufacturers deliberately, consciously, intentionally keep silent about the composition of steel which they changed around a decade ago? Total substitution without informing the public was done,” Coseteng said.

“Are the steel suppliers agreeable that should there be a failure in their rebar products, when earthquake damage occurs and failure is attributable to poor performance, that they will not hold engineers, developers, contractors liable for the use of their products? My statements are very clear according to available international studies,” she said.

Pending bill

A law seeking to standardize the manufacture of quality steel reinforcing bars for high rise buildings is currently pending in the 17th Congress. Filed by Lanete, House Bill 8871 seeks more stringent labeling, testing, enforcement and penalties, among others, for steel rebars.

Both Morales and Coseteng have expressed strong support for some of the proposed measures in Lanete’s bill.

Penal provisions for violators of the government testing and labeling processes have also been ramped up, with fines reaching up to P10 million as well as imprisonment from 1 to three years.

Coseteng justified the stricter provisions of the proposed bill, saying that “this issue holds a great economic impact on all of our lives.”

“Safety should not be sacrificed for a few pesos of savings. You can’t put a price tag on people’s lives,” she said.

Topics: earthquakes , substandard steel , Metro Manila towers
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