Big quake and substandard steel threaten Metro Manila towers
“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.