Lawmakers get down to nuts and bolts - no kidding

From the local hardware store to NASA procurement departments, millions of faulty and substandard bolts and screws have infiltrated the American economy. The faulty fasteners have been found in bridges, mass transit systems, defense equipment, school buses, nuclear power plants and every common contraption that has more than one part, according to a congressional report issued earlier this summer.

In the study, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) reported substandard fasteners in virtually all of the country's nuclear power plants. On the average, about 10 percent of the samples from non-reactor-related areas were substandard, as were eight percent in reactor-related areas.

NRC spokesmen told the House Energy and Commerce committee the substandard fasteners were degrading their quality control system and that some of the fasteners were replaced. But they denied it was a critical safety matter.

During the two-year investigation, the Defense Department reported the discovery of 30 million counterfeit fasteners. Faulty fasteners were found everywhere from missile systems to transportation equipment, says Thomas Dorney, special assistant to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

Subcommittee staffers say substandard fasteners have been traced to US companies that import low-quality bolts and screws from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Poland, among other countries. The companies sell the imports as high-quality carbon steel bolts, thus undercutting domestic prices and skirting the higher tariffs on better bolts.

In other cases, American companies have misrepresented the quality of domestically made fasteners, the staffers say. The counterfeits are turning up in all shapes, sizes, and degrees of sophistication, and can usually only be identified through metallurgical testing.

The fasteners may fall below specifications in any number of ways. They may not last as long as they are supposed to, they may be too soft or too hard and brittle, or they may not be coated properly to guard against corrosion.

Committee Chairman John Dingell (D) of Michigan has introduced a bill that would require fastener makers to obtain laboratory certification that their products meet current voluntary US standards.

Copies of the certificate would be passed to buyers to the wholesale level. The fasteners would then be stamped with a manufacturer's code and a code indicating its grade. The bill also prescribes seizure authority and criminal penalties for fraud.

The legislation's cost to the economy would be ``considerably less'' than the present system, says Stephen Sims, special assistant to the oversight and investigation subcommittee. Some companies already have their fasteners tested and stamped voluntarily, and end-users who are aware of the problem are starting to test as well.

But mandatory testing for everyone at the manufacturer's level is more efficient, Mr. Sims says. Testing once the lots of fasteners have been broken up ``is like trying to pick up the raindrops and put them back in the clouds,'' he says.

The federal government seems to have been particularly hard hit by fastener fraud, Sims says. ``If you're a private purchaser you can buy from whomever you want, but if you're the Uncle, you've got to buy low bidder.''

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (formerly the National Bureau of Standards) opposes the proposal. Spokesmen there question the government's ability to enforce standards that were designed for voluntary use.

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